At the Smithsonian American Art Museum an exhibit called To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America is showing until September 5, 2011. This exhibit features the work of painter George Ault during the years surrounding World War II. In addition to the artwork by Ault, the exhibit also features the paintings of Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and Norman Rockwell.
Alexander Nemerov, the curator, concentrates on World War II history. To Make a World is a stunning example of the curator’s careful attention and dedication to the era, going beyond the stereotypical images associated with WWII and focusing on the quiet desperation that many Americans faced hundreds of miles away from the battlefields. Ault’s work in particular is an insightful exploration into the anxiety and emotional turmoil experienced by an artist whose life was plagued by trauma and tragedy.
When I first visited To Make a World, I knew very little about George Ault and his paintings. However, his work seemed familiar to me due to his precise, simple, and eerie style that can be seen in the works of other artists of the time such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. There is also a surrealist quality to his work that reminded me of Giorgio de Chirico. As I toured the gallery, I began to wonder about the common thread that binds Ault to the rest of his contemporaries. All of the works in the show leave the viewer with a feeling of anxiety although the paintings depict ordinary scenes of daily life. Although the works were painted during the years surrounding WWII, none of them feature scenes of violence from the battlefields abroad. Instead, quiet scenes of rural America present a feeling of uneasiness, as if the viewer is holding their breath and waiting for something to happen.
After viewing To Make a World, I returned to my internship with the Smithsonian American Art Museum where I am working in the American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library (AAPG). I knew I was in the right spot to learn more about George Ault. However, among the many biographies on the artist was also the book written by Alexander Nemerov for the show at the American Art Museum. Nemerov’s book is a wonderful guide to the exhibition. Since it was written by the curator, all of the questions that I had compiled after seeing the exhibit were answered in the book. Additionally, I was able to begin to understand the complex emotional trauma behind Ault and his art as he suffered through his own personal hardships and those of WWII.
George Ault was born October 11, 1891 and worked as a painter until his tragic death on December 30, 1948 when he drowned in the Sawkill Creek in Woodstock, New York. The artist’s life was full of tragedy, which suggests reasons for his reclusive nature during his adulthood. In 1915, Ault’s brother and wife committed suicide together. Five years later, Ault’s mother died in a mental hospital followed by his father’s death in 1929. Also that year, the stock market crash lead to the loss of the family’s fortune and brothers Donald and Charles’s suicides. When Ault married his second wife Louise, the couple moved to Woodstock, New York. It was during his time there where Ault painted some of the most discussed works from To Make a World.
Ault’s series of paintings depicting Russell’s Corners (p. 61 in the catalog), a street corner close to his home in Woodstock, are subjects of much of Nemerov’s essay in the exhibit book. This scene Ault paints repeatedly throughout his career only varying it slightly according to time of day or to the position in which he was viewing the corner. In Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (depicted on the cover) from 1946, Ault depicts the corner at night. One harsh, clear light illuminates the picture and casts shadows onto the barns and telephone wires. The extreme use of chiaroscuro gives the painting high contrast and a theatrical quality, which calls to mind Baroque paintings.
The clarity of Ault’s paintings gives them an eerie quality that gives the impression that the viewer is anxiously waiting for the stillness in the painting to be disrupted by chaos. The author describes Ault’s style as "precise alignments and geometries of barns, telephone wires, and street lights symbolically calm disastrous and unpredictable events” (p.18). According to Nemerov, Ault’s paintings were a way for the artist to come to terms with the chaos in his life and in the world. Their simplicity and order is a reaction to the uncertainty of the world at war around him.
The violence occurring in Europe as a result of WWII was troubling to Ault. He had spent some time in France as a child and was deeply troubled when France fell to Germany. Nemerov discusses how this unhappiness can be seen in Ault’s painting, Memories of the Coast of France from 1944. The painting has a surrealist quality, which according to Ault was intentional, “I have a complete sense of unreality, especially after reading in the newspaper what is going on in the world” (p. 30).
To Make A World is an intimate look into the anxious mind of an American painter as he struggled to make sense of WWII. Nemerov’s book is an excellent guide to the exhibition and provides a comprehensive understanding to the arts and culture of the time. George Ault’s paintings are quiet moments on the surface, but after careful observation reveal much more. To Make a World is an exhibition very much worth visiting for its insightful and intriguing paintings. However, Nemerov’s book, found in the AAPG Library, gives the visitor an even greater appreciation for George Ault and the worlds he created in his paintings.
The AAPG library holds vertical files on all the artists represented in the exhibition. The file on Ault contains a wide variety of material on the artist including early exhibition lists and records of the first memorial exhibitons after his death. In addition to the exhibition catalog, the library also has several books on Ault including:
Olivia Wood is an intern from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is interning at the AAPG Library. She received her B.A. in Art History in 2011 from Rhodes College.