George Ault and 1940s America

But the light is also that of someone who believes God is dead. Louise chose a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) to epitomize her husband: “Unless there be chaos within, no dancing star is born.”17 The Russell’s Corners light is such a Nietzschean glow. Nietz­sche’s light, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is autonomous and lonely, the sign of a person living by his own laws, “a star thrown out into the void and into the icy breath of solitude.” Nietz­sche’s light, too, is hostile to an afterworld, a life after life, since “God is dead” but the light is a life-affirming power to those who have it, a lightning bolt of creative pleasure and passion. And it is a gift the passionate artist gives to others. “Goldlike gleam the eyes of the giver,” Zarathustra tells the townspeople at a crossroads before taking his leave.18

The giving comes at a personal cost, yes. The gift giver, made of light, envies the darkness, wishing that he too could be the night and receive “gifts of light” instead of only bestowing them. He rues his self-immolation, regretting that he lives only in his own light, “drink[ing] back into myself the flames that break out of me.”  And he envies and hates those to whom he gives. “I should like to hurt those for whom I shine.”19  But his fierce and joyful independence was meant to be a path to those who find it.

Did Ault imagine his work would outlive him?  When Ault fell into the flooded, swollen stream near their house as he walked home alone on the stormy night of December 30, 1948—they did not recover his body until five days later—“he must have felt helpless, an utter victim,” Louise thought. He had told her once that when birds die, that was all there was to it—“ping!”—and they were gone, and so it was for him the night he died, Louise thought:  “He went ‘ping!’... hurtling into a universe that he knew well.”  She thought too of how he would say “Here today and gone tomorrow” with a “would-be flippant smile.”20

Certainly Ault’s last painting of Russell’s Corners, August Night at Russell’s Corners, is literally his darkest and emptiest (Fig. 6). Painted a few months before his death and showing the vantage looking up the Rock City Road toward the vantage of Black Night, the first Russell’s Corners painting from five years earlier, the painting “seemed blacker than the others,” Louise wrote; “its black center deep, a void.”21 Proportionately, Ault devoted much more of the canvas to the empty sky, and it is the emptiest of all the Russell’s Corners paintings. Compared to it, the night sky in Black Night, for all its somber quiet, seems positively busy with designs—telephone poles, wires, barns, and the tree. In August Night there is instead a void as of outer space, “the universe that he knew well.” The lone street light appears as a sun beheld from the curved surface of a remote planet.

Yet all that night holds this sun as though for special keeping. The light is the most insistent thing in the painting, the part that looks directly out at us, amid all the reticence, the retreating and withdrawing. The sun counters the rapid rush of diminution along the Rock City Road, the feeling of dust and vanishing points. If the sun should stand out even in this darkest picture, then the same is true in all the Russell’s Corners paintings. And though these pictures are not illustrations of Nietzschean philosophy any more than they are of Christianity, and though the philosophy itself may seem overwrought to a more cynical and clinical temperament, there is nevertheless the fact that Ault’s cry of pain, as a gift, should glow with a splendor sufficient to make it an affirmation, a dancing star born from chaos. So do his scenes radiate with the perpetual order of these small suns.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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