It is a story that has gone down in the annals of American art history: a New Yorker visiting upstate Hoosick Falls is entranced by four pictures hanging in the window of a drugstore. Investigating further, he learns they are the handiwork of a 78-year-old widow. Thus begins the rise to fame of Grandma Moses—farmwife, painter, and unlikely celebrity.
In this book Karal Ann Marling, distinguished observer of American visual culture, looks at Grandma Moses as a cultural phenomenon of the postwar period and explores the meaning of her subject matter—and her astonishing fame. What did the “Greatest Generation” see in her simple renderings of people, young and old, tapping maple trees for syrup, making apple butter, gliding across snowy fields on sleighs? Why did Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, and Harry Truman all love her—and the art czars of New York openly despise her? Through the flood of Moses merchandise—splashed across Christmas cards, dishware, yard goods, and gewgaws of every kind—Marling traces the resonances that these “primitive” images struck in an America awkwardly adjusting to a new era of technology, suburbia, and Cold War tensions.
Between the cultural ephemera, folklore, song, and history embedded in Moses’s paintings and the potent advertising shorthand for Americana that her images rapidly became, this book reveals the widespread longing for the memories, comforts, and small victories of a mythic, intimate American past tapped by the phenomenon—in art and commerce alike—of Grandma Moses.
To most Americans [Grandma Moses’s] art was real art, the genuine, accessible thing, as opposed to the Abstract Expressionist painting being promoted in certain quarters as the internationalist face of American culture in the 1950’s. It’s a little startling to revisit the art wars waged in the popular press of that era, as one can do in Designs on the Heart… Public battles over ‘highbrow’ versus ‘lowbrow’ had a heated, personal urgency rarely inspired by art today.
Asking Karal Ann Marling to write a catalogue for a museum exhibition…is a little like asking Jamie Oliver to fix a snack. That you will get anything less than a feast is unimaginable… Marling [is] a stunningly astute observer of American visual culture… Like the best works of cultural criticism, Designs on the Heart will leave the reader saying ‘Of course! How could I not have thought of this before, it’s so self-evidently true? And yet, I would never have asked these questions or connected these dots myself.’ And, like the best works of historical scholarship, it will leave readers asking new questions about our own cultural icons.
Delightful. Marling’s book is neither a straight biography nor a coffeetable picture book. Rather, it is an affectionate analysis of the ‘Grandma’ phenomenon, albeit laced with plenty of photos, biographical stories and images of Moses’ art.
In Designs on the Heart: The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses, Karal Ann Marling sets out to explain Grandma Moses’ continuing status as an American icon and her art’s eternal popularity. The book contains photos of Moses and her environs, as well as plenty of color plates of her work.
How Grandma Moses was discovered in the village of Hoosick Falls, New York, and how she went on to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon are questions answered in an extraordinary and compelling story revealed in Karal Ann Marling’s new book, Designs on the Heart: The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses.
Karal Ann Marling has long provided astute and sympathetic commentary on diverse facets of American popular culture. Designs on the Heart continues in this vein: a great read full of interesting insights about an American artist that we all really ‘know’ but really don’t know much about. Grandma Moses remains an icon of American art today, and Karal Ann Marling’s new book helps explain why.
It is no mean feat to recast a national icon in a new light, but Karal Ann Marling manages to do so. Marling’s text is a provocative delight—lively, insightful, and mercifully free of jargon. It is an important contribution to the appreciation of a singular artistic personality; equally significant, it provides new illumination to a telling episode in American taste. Students of both art history and American Studies—as well as the legions of Grandma Moses admirers—should find it a valuable addition to the literature. This is the way art history ought to be written. Another Marling triumph.
- 304 pages
- 8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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