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Grant Wood's American Gothic

Original image
Getty Images

No American artwork has been parodied more than American Gothic. Zombies, dogs, Beavis and Butt-Head, the Muppets, Lego figures, and even Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton have taken a turn with the pitchfork. But the painting itself is no joke—American Gothic is as recognizable as the Mona Lisa and The Scream.

During the Great Depression, the masterpiece gave hope to a desperate nation, and it helped shape the notion of the Midwest as a land of hard work and honest values. Today, the painting is firmly embedded in our cultural vocabulary. Yet, for all its fame, few people know the story of Grant Wood and how the piece also unraveled his life.

That Quirky Wood Kid

In 1929, Grant Wood was a 38-year-old unknown. The artist was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the attic of a funeral-home carriage house. Though the location may seem morbid, Wood spruced up his home with whimsical decorations. He replaced the front door with a repurposed coffin lid and outfitted the entrance with a dial that indicated if he was in, out, asleep, painting, or having a party. Wood wasn’t the only one stuffed into this loft space: He shared the studio with his mother and sister, all three sleeping side by side on pull-out beds.

Oddly enough, none of this shocked the neighbors. As a closeted gay man, Wood avoided what his sister, Nan, called “any earmarks of the artist.” He dressed exclusively in overalls, a signifier that the painting he did was gritty—man’s work. And he benefited from being a local. People in Cedar Rapids found Wood’s eccentricities charming. Friends shook their heads and smiled when he forgot to pay his bills. They even ignored his flimsy excuses for avoiding marriage. Wood was a lovable bachelor who wanted to take care of his widowed mother, that’s all.

Painting was just another of Wood’s harmless quirks—at least now that he’d given up living in Europe. The artist had spent good chunks of the 1920s in Paris and Munich, but announced upon his 1928 return that he was back for good. The freewheeling and permissive nature of the European art scene had fascinated him. But when a solo show in Paris was met with critical indifference, it put a damper on the continent’s shine.

Still, Wood’s style benefited from his experiences abroad. His previously atmospheric, Impressionistic painting took on a hard-edged, Old Master quality. He drew inspiration from the work of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who recast biblical narratives as scenes from his own time. And he took composition cues from 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. After three stints in Europe, Wood was ready for home. As the artist told the Chicago Tribune, “I spent 20 years wandering around the world hunting ‘arty’ subjects to paint. I came back ... and the first thing I noticed was the cross-stitched embroidery of my mother’s kitchen apron.” That moment changed him. Armed with new technique, and a new appreciation for the mundane, Wood no longer needed to travel. What he needed was right there, in Iowa.

Going Goth

In August 1930, Wood spotted an unusual farmhouse on a drive through the tiny town of Eldon, Iowa. The house had a strange and compelling feature: a high, arched window in the Carpenter Gothic style. The artist was immediately transfixed by the structure. He needed to know what sort of people resided there. But instead of simply knocking on the door, Wood decided to capture the farmhouse in paint and tease out the story for himself. Piece by piece, he sorted through the puzzle.

Wood started by asking his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby, to serve as the male model. Throughout his life, Wood had suffered from an incurable sweet tooth—he took half a cup of sugar with his coffee, and even poured sugar on his lettuce. Over the years, he spent plenty of time in McKeeby’s chair studying and admiring the dentist’s grim, oval face. Now seemed like the perfect time to paint it. For the farmer’s companion, Wood intended to use his mother, Hattie, as a model. But when he realized that posing would be too exhausting for her, he asked his 32-year-old sister, Nan, to don Hattie’s rickrack-trimmed apron and cameo pin.

While the cast was familiar, the composition was something completely new. The couple stands posed before their simple farmhouse, its only flourish an arched window purchased from Sears. The man stares almost directly at the viewer while clutching his pitchfork; his thin lips and arched eyebrows give him a stern, slightly quizzical look. The woman looks off to the side as if unwilling to meet the viewer’s gaze, a single curled tendril of hair escaping from her bun. Both have unnaturally long faces and thin necks, as if to emphasize their uprightness. They are hardworking and humorless, dignified and honest.

Wood submitted American Gothic—the name a nod to the house’s architectural style—to a 1930 competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Overnight, the painting became a hit. American Gothic won a bronze medal and a $300 prize, was acquired by the museum, and was reproduced in newspapers around the country. Something about it resonated with audiences, and in that mysterious process by which paintings become famous, it quickly achieved near-universal recognition.

Not everyone saw the same thing. Some perceived the work as a scathing parody of the Midwest—one outraged farm wife even threatened to bite off Wood’s ear. Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein and other critics praised the painting as a cutting small-town satire, the visual equivalent of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Still others saw the painting as honoring the Midwest and its strong values. As the Great Depression bore down on the country, Americans yearned for positive depictions of themselves, and Wood’s work provided the nation with a pair of ready-made secular saints of the American heartland.

Perhaps the strangest reaction, however, was from an audience focused on the age disparity between the husband and wife in the picture. Protests poured in. Nan, too, became increasingly concerned—she didn’t want to be memorialized as “married” to a much older man. So Wood altered his initial stance to claim that the painting depicted a father and daughter. In fact, Wood frequently rewrote the artwork’s history. When the painting was hailed as a satire, he went along; when it was declared an homage to the Midwest, he agreed with that, too. Finally, he came out with a bold statement that clarified nothing: “There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.”

A Mixed Legacy

With the success of American Gothic, Wood finally received the validation of his talent that he’d been seeking all his life. He was declared the founder of a new school of art, called Regionalism, and he was quick to embrace the narrative. “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” Wood famously told the press. In truth, he hated life on the farm, and was repulsed by cow udders and freshly laid chicken eggs.

For Wood, the trade-off for fame was steep, and the artist was ill-equipped to deal with the scrutiny. He and his family lost all of their privacy. Strange fans began showing up at his apartment, ignoring the dial on the door and walking right inside. People started asking pointed questions about his bachelor status. A blackmailer even confronted Wood, threatening to reveal lurid secrets from his past. And as a nation looked to Wood as the embodiment of the Midwestern man, Wood found it harder and harder to negotiate his double life. By 1935, he was desperate. He married an older divorcée and fled Cedar Rapids. While the marriage was one of convenience, the strains of the arrangement left him both financially and creatively bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Wood’s tricks had finally worn thin. People were tiring of Regionalism, and Wood found it increasingly difficult to conceal his sexuality. He spent more and more time drawing the male figure, and in 1937, he produced Sultry Night. The piece showed a naked man standing next to a trough pouring a bucket of water over his body. When questioned, Wood defended the work as depicting the ordinary bathing habits of hired men on farms. The explanation fooled no one. Things got worse: When Wood submitted the painting to a national juried show, he was asked to withdraw it. Then, the piece was barred from being sent through the mail after the Post Office deemed it “pornographic.”

Wood was mortified. He sawed the canvas in half, burned the nude portion of the painting, and didn’t paint another picture for more than a year. The artist’s life was complicated by a divorce. And when Time magazine launched an investigation into the truth about his sexuality, Wood was forced to abandon a coveted teaching position at the University of Iowa.

Wood might have pulled through all these challenges, but he never got the chance. In 1941, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday and not quite 12 years after the completion of American Gothic.

As for his masterpiece, its fame continued to grow after Wood’s death. Easily parodied, it’s been reimagined in movies, TV shows, marketing campaigns, even pornography. And audiences seem unable to put away the painting—to assign it a single, easy interpretation and just let it be. American Gothic remains inscrutable: satire and homage, highbrow and lowbrow, honest and creepy all at the same time. In the end, what makes the painting so successful is that it begs you to look closer and ask questions—the very thing Wood never wanted for himself.

American Gothic 101

Truly Gothic
Wood was inspired by the Old Masters of Northern Europe, and elements of the painting make it a modern version of Late Gothic art: the clear blue sky like those typically painted above Christ or the Virgin Mary; the woman’s elongated face like that of a Madonna; and the flat, finished surface, an effect Wood created by painstakingly smoothing the surface of the canvas with a razor blade.
Windows of the Soul?
Viewers often come away from American Gothic with a sense of disquiet, unable to stop thinking about the most disturbing element—the closed and curtained window. Biographer R. Tripp Evans called the window “a vanishing point in more than one sense,” adding, “Family secrets, dead bodies, incest, and murder all haunt this work, and they enter the painting here.”
Making a Cameo
The pin on the woman’s dress had been a gift from Grant Wood to his mother, Hattie. Some read the painting as a one-step-removed portrait of Wood’s parents, the stern, humorless father being a stand-in for his own dad.
On One Hand
Critics have noted that the farmer’s clenched fist anchors the painting (without it, the pitchfork fades into the background). Wood was enamored with his dentist’s hand, once gripping it tight and remarking, “This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.”
Fever Pitch
When Iowans complained that pitchforks typically have four tines, not three, Wood defended his depiction. He claimed the tool he drew was the kind used for pitching hay. But the argument misses the point. The verticals of the three tines are echoed throughout the painting: in the pocket, windows, the man’s shirt and face, and the roof of the barn.

This article first appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a risk-free issue here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.