"Comedy is nothing more than tragedy deferred," the essayist Pico Iyer has written.
For the painter Grant Wood, best known for his 1930s' "American Gothic," the tragedy is that most of his comedy has been deferred so long. But Wood's gentle playfulness is now on display in the most comprehensive exhibition on the artist to date.
Created by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and opening in March at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., the show featuring more than 170 of his works demonstrates that he was as comfortable with cast iron as watercolors and oil, producing everything from wry portraits to whimsical decorations. He created flower arrangements from found wire and clothespins and called them Lilies of the Alley.
When Wood started out as an artist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the early 1920s, he painted in an impressionistic, Monet-like style and kept his jokes to himself.
Only friends saw his cartoon of three Indians stealing flannel pajamas off a clothesline and the coffin lid that he made into a door for his studio.
"It wasn't until he felt comfortable that he really began to use his humor," Renwick curator Jane Milosch tells Smithsonian magazine.
While working as an art teacher at McKinley Junior High School in 1922, Wood made perhaps his first attempt at mixing his fine art with his refined wit. He built a mission-style bench for misbehaving students who had been sent to the principal's office. Into the oak posts Wood carved caricatures of unruly youths, and along the top rail he engraved: "The way of the transgressor is hard."
Called Mourners' Bench, the hot seat was used by the school until 1970. "I certainly had no idea that it was made by a genius," says retired lawyer Don Ribble, 75, who sat on the bench in the 1940s. "I don't remember it all that well, probably because I was too worried about seeing the principal."
Wood's signature painting style began to take shape only after he traveled to Munich in 1928 to supervise the production of a stained-glass window he had designed for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building. He saw the works from an art movement called the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), whose adherents were reacting against abstraction by emphasizing realism.
Back at home, Wood began painting graphic scenes of hardworking farmers and wide, rolling cornfields. He later became one of the leading proponents of regionalist art, even dressing the part in bib overalls.
"All the really good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow," said Wood. "So I went back to Iowa."
But Wood's humor wasn't all fun and games. When the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution protested his stained-glass window because it had been manufactured abroad, he made a satirical painting of three smug, well-coifed septuagenarians called Daughters of Revolution.
Wood, who died of cancer in 1942 at age 50, insisted that "American Gothic," with its stern farmer and daughter, wasn't a true parody. Rather, he saw the humor in the painting as, well, lifelike.
"There is satire in it," he once said. "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."