Some Parallels are Hard to Ignore

The story of Grant Wood finding the house in American Gothic, as well as the two models, his sister Nan Wood Graham and his dentist Dr. Byron McKeeby, is well known. Especially Nan Wood Graham, as she remained an active promoter of her brother for decades. But how much is known about an equally famous portrait and a woman named Monika Pon-su-san?

I will be the first one to admit until the other day I had no idea who Monika Pon-su-san is, but, upon discovery, the parallels with Nan Wood Graham are too close to dismiss.

Pon-su-san’s story begins two decades later than Wood’s and in a much different location—Cape Town, South Africa, in 1950. Pon-su-san was working in her uncle’s launderette when she was spotted by Russian expat and artist Vladimir Tretchikoff.

Tretchikoff (who I wasn’t much aware of either prior to this research) saw something in the young lady and asked her to model for him. The result was Chinese Girl, one of the highest selling art prints in the 1950s and 60s. Don’t see the connection? Read on.

According to an article in The Huffington Post, “Vladimir Tretchikoff’s iconic painting ‘Chinese Girl,’ said to be one of the most reproduced in the world, is coming home to South Africa after more than half a century in a private Chicago collection.”
In a recent interview with BBC News, Pon-Su-San recounted the story of how she came to be a model for the iconic portrait and comments on the final product.

“A lot of people ask me: ‘What is that stern look you had on your face? What were you thinking about?’”

Stern face? This is much like the review Nan Wood Graham received after American Gothic became known, as one person was said to remark, “her face would sour milk.”

Granted, the style of Tretchikoff and Wood differ greatly (Wood, to my knowledge, didn’t paint any green faces) but nonetheless both paintings have been reproduced extensively and found their way into pop culture, with Chinese Girl featured on “mugs, T-shirts, posters and wallpaper,” according to The Huffington Post.

I am not aware of any American Gothic wallpaper out there but it has been plastered on mugs and T-shirts for decades, as well as a host of other venues. Both paintings also hold the title—depending on whom is doing the talking—of the most reproduced painting in the world. In short, both are notable in the own right and are similar in popularity.

There is another parallel between the two artists and their paintings that must be mentioned. Wood, in certain circles, was never considered a serious artist. Early in his career, and for decades after his death, Wood and his work was often labeled “sentimental,” and not worthy of intellectual examination. Evidently, Tretchikoff suffered much of the same criticism, at least for Chinese Girl.

As per The Huffington Post, “’Chinese Girl’ sometimes is called the ‘Mona Lisa of kitsch,’ angering Tretchikoff who insisted he was a serious artist.”

One more parallel: Both artists, regardless of their critics, will live long in the public’s eye. So much for the art critics.

Things to remember

This Sunday, May 12, Orchestra Iowa’s will perform “American Gothic,” an original composition by three-time Grammy Award-Winner Michael Daugherty, at the Bridge View Center at 3 p.m. Admission is free.

On Friday, May 24 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the American Gothic House Center, a new exhibit, “Parodies of a Portrait: An American Icon’s Place in Pop Culture,” will premier. Stop by and check out how American Gothic has been portrayed in pop culture. Some may even surprise you!

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