George Ault and 1940s America

Keeping to himself in Woodstock, Ault was deeply affected by the war. The day after France fell in 1940, Louise saw him get up abruptly from the easel and go out the back door: “I saw him sitting on the porch steps, face buried in his hands; I found him sobbing.” She also remembered that “as Hitler’s armies spread out in victorious marches, he scanned the headlines of the New York Times, his hands trembling from the agitation they caused him, then put the newspaper aside for calm perusal in the evening and sat down at his easel to paint.” Having vacationed in France as a boy, back when the Aults lived in England from 1899 to 1910 when his father ran the family business there, Ault could not believe it: “Paris in the hands of Germans!”8 In 1944 he would make pictures recalling his boyhood experiences at Cap Gris-Nez on the Pas-de-Calais—the French beaches now sadly and sinisterly transformed—such as Memories of the Coast of France and The Cable Station.

Maybe even Ault’s painting of a junction in his small town, so remote and unrelated to international headlines, was a response to the world’s chaos. Ault painted Russell’s Corners five times, the subsequent versions coming in 1944 (his only daytime treatment of the scene), 1946 (twice, see Fig. 4), and 1948 (Fig. 6), but it is significant that he made his first picture of the subject in 1943, as if wartime were the impetus. What then if the steady hand were responding to the trembling hand, and in such a way that both the calm and the chaos, the clarity and the black night itself, were evoked in his brooding picture?

In 1938 Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) had described the cosmic place of another corners—the mythical town of Grover’s Corners, setting for his celebrated play Our Town, where Rebecca Gibbs tells her brother George about the address on a letter his friend Jane Crofut received: “Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.... Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”9 The only difference between Grover’s Corners and Russell’s Corners was Ault’s blacker night. The country crossroads made a small and delicate order, a fragile array of sharp forms, but the universe pressed down. The little buildings “shoulder the sky,” to cite a phrase of Housman’s that Ault loved.10 Impossible burdens afflicted the wartime imagination.

But would the message get out?  “Only Walt Whitman and I cry straight from the heart,” Ault told Louise, but could the cry be heard?11 Consider Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (Fig. 4), Ault’s next nighttime version of the scene, painted in 1946, which positions us on the lower Glasco Turnpike, looking back to the intersection past the white barn.

Consider especially the geometry of telephone lines, which imply Ault’s views about communication. Appearing and disappearing in the night, the lines suggest voices framed against those black nights Ault loved to paint, where they stand out as cat scratches on the darkness.

Without great faith in the world, Ault painted pictures he thought would go into the void of space and time. When a Pittsburgh couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Lawrence, wrote to him to express their admiration of Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (they had seen the painting at the Carnegie annual exhibition in 1947, purchased it, and later gave it to the National Collection of Fine Arts [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum]), Ault expressed his sincere thanks and, really, his surprise. “It is not often that an artist gets such heartfelt response from those who have acquired a work of his. It is usually just, ‘we like your picture very much’ or ‘it’s awfully nice,’ and that’s all one hears and the picture disappears into the void,” he wrote. “I’ve sold many pictures during the past twenty-five years and I haven’t the faintest idea of what has become of them, or most of them.”12

The void is twofold. It is not just the oblivion of sending one’s work to unknown parties and subsequently losing track of it. It is the equal oblivion of having even the known parties fail to comprehend the art in more than general terms. The contrast to other artists’ belief in a power of perfectly clear communication could not be starker. In 1948 in Arlington, Vermont, about a hundred miles from Woodstock, Norman Rockwell painted The Gossips (see Fig. 3)—a painting showing the transmission of a story from upper left to bottom right with absolutely no signal drift, no loss of message. The perfect circuit is an apt sign of Rockwell’s own powers of communication: his message is always loud and clear, and he can string together communities with what he says. But in Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, as in Ault’s other nighttime paintings of the solitary junction, the wires fade in and out.

Why did Ault portray this difficulty of communication?  He felt that clear messages are vulgar and avoided them on those grounds. But there is something still more reserved about his paintings than that. Avoiding explicit messages, they risk—and seem to know they risk—an absolute quietness, so reserved, so withdrawn, that they all but invite a viewer to walk past them with hardly a look. When seen in the same gallery as the larger, bolder works of Edward Hopper (1882–1967), for example, Ault’s paintings retire. “I recalled how uningratiating his paintings looked, and austere, when hanging among others,” Louise remembered.13

The reticence, however, is far from a petulant withholding of moods and insights. It has rather the quality of a gift requiring some effort to find—some saving secret just off the beaten track. The paintings are like the waterfall Louise remembered she and her husband “had discovered unexpectedly on a walk, after we left the road to follow an old quarry trail and descended a ledge to wander below.”  Like this waterfall, “actually close by the road but unsuspected, hidden from passersby,” Ault’s paintings would be “solitary and sublime,” unknown except to those who knew where to look.14 Ault conceived his paintings as secrets hidden in cool quiet, kept away from those who did not know or care how to look—the “wrong ones,” Robert Frost called them in those years15—but suggesting a meeting place, a convergence, where some saving wisdom would be revealed. Disdainful of showcasing their wonders, they offer quieter revelations.

And what are these revelations?  What stands out in Bright Light at Russell’s Corners is the electric light. In one sense it is a Christian light, sign of private devotion, strange as this may seem to say about an artist who changed his middle name from Christian to Copeland and who professed to hate religion. Louise wrote of how her husband framed and hung a color reproduction of Sassetta’s Journey of the Magi in his studio (see Fig. 5), with “its dazzling star hovering close to earth, illuminating the earth” at lower right. Ault almost certainly saw the actual painting, given in 1943 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the small panel would have been among the “lovingly painted” Renaissance pictures with their “landscape backgrounds” that Louise recalled her husband pointed out to her.16 Sassetta’s star is an apt model for the large and eponymous street light in Bright Light, making the lonely crossroads a place of religious reverence and holy guidance. The light in Ault’s painting, a flower of grace illuminating no procession and no parade, lights a solitary path, a glowing compass that designs the dirt of the road no less than the planes of the barn, showing the way.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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