Alexander Nemerov, who holds the prestigious Vincent Scully professorship of art history at Yale University, is in the middle of a brilliant love affair with the 1940s. He teaches a popular college seminar on the home front during World War II and has written a book on an obscure master of the 1940s horror film, Val Lewton. On Friday, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened an exhibition, curated by Nemerov, that examines the work of George Ault, a painter who was never as famous as Norman Rockwell — the subject of a popular show that recently closed in the same gallery — but much more interesting and meaningful.
“To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” is a focused and intense look at things we have collectively forgotten about the 1940s. But it is also very much about the mind of Nemerov, a thinker unafraid to take big chances, make tenuous associations and connect highly disparate material.
Nemerov presents Ault, a retiring and misanthropic painter who moved to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1937, as a channeler of the anxieties and existential uncertainties that have been burnished off the public memory of the war years. The show, he argues, is meant to take visitors “beyond our Rosie the Riveter and ‘accentuate the positive’ stereotypes” of life on the home front.
The exhibition, an exciting and virtuosic display of curating prowess, centers on five paintings Ault made of a single crossroads near his Woodstock home. The Russell’s Corners paintings return, obsessively, to a collection of farm buildings that are consistently rendered in meticulous detail, yet feel strangely abstract and hyper-real. They seem intentionally static on the surface but teem with irregularities, misaligned windows and warped wood.
Four of them are night visions, lit by a single, lonely light that renders some surfaces with electric brightness but is insufficient to dispel the gloom that is the pervasive backdrop to Ault’s best work. Even the painting of the corners by day is a study in wintry bleakness, a landscape of slate-gray skies and snow that resists the Currier and Ives tendency to be festive.
They were made during and just after the war, and though they would seem to have nothing to do with the carnage so many thousands of miles away, Nemerov is convinced these are wartime images. He sees them as studies in unspoken opposites: Their clarity and order are a defense against the personal and geopolitical demons that haunted Ault; their reticence is proof of deeper anguish; their emptiness masks a crowding-in of meaning, fear and pain; and their local precision is pregnant with intimations of universality.
This is a slippery form of argument, premised on the vaguely Freudian idea that great paintings, like people, are always repressing or hiding their meanings. Much of what is striking about the Russell’s Corners paintings can be explained without such grand leaps of philosophical faith. Ault, whose misanthropy may have extended to a constitutional indifference to the human form, was lousy at painting figures, rendering them like cartoons. He was also better at buildings seen from out of doors than from within. Perhaps his great, brooding paintings of old barns under harsh light are empty for an obvious and strategic reason: He was limiting himself to what he did best.
Like other painters on view in the show, Ault was clearly interested in how the poetry of the 19th-century landscape was fading fast, halfway into the new century, which may explain the compelling mix of wooden architecture and electric light. The formal order and clarity, especially the strikingly lit telephone wires that break the image into angular planes, may be a nod to the formal tendencies of avant-garde art that were otherwise of little interest to Ault. The powerful chiaroscuro contrasts of light and dark that give the paintings their rhetorical power may also be Ault’s exploration of how cinematic lighting techniques were changing our vision of what night looked and felt like.
But Nemerov’s passion for these paintings isn’t misplaced, and while you might not be willing to follow him every step of the way in the passionately argued exercise in metaphysical poetry that serves as a catalogue essay, he makes a compelling case that Ault had great art in him and that, in some inchoate way, it does indeed relate to the trauma of World War II.
Nemerov convincingly relates Ault’s work both to that of other painters in the 1940s and to poets and writers exploring similar themes. Ault wasn’t the only artist doing something seemingly trivial — slapping paint on canvas — in the middle of world-rending war, and he can’t have been the only painter to wonder if what he was doing was escapism or somehow, in a larger sense, a necessary contribution to the ongoing project of civilization, so threatened by totalitarianism. Nemerov has noticed and explicated what may be a wartime tendency to reticence, quiet and emptiness in the works of other painters, including Edward Hopper, whose 1942 “Dawn in Pennsylvania” is included in the exhibition.
Sometimes, as in Rockwell Kent’s “December 8, 1941,” which gives an enigmatic vision of family set against a brilliant but hushed view of the Adirondack Mountains, the quiet is part of a preternatural sense of the gulf between war abroad and peace at home. Others, such as Raphael Gleitsmann’s “Untitled” of 1946 — a view across a bridge into an empty city under an angry, sooty sky — suggests the bleakness of war-torn Europe translated into the visual icons of an American industrial landscape.
Nemerov also quotes extensively from writers who turned to very particular places apart from the madness of war — pastorals and idylls of small-town life — to explore more universal themes. In Thornton Wilder’s “ Our Town ,” set in the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, the cosmos is given as much order as man’s limited understanding can bring it. Nemerov cites the haunting address on a letter received by one of the play’s characters: 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.
Nothing brings mankind together quite like war. Although Wilder’s play premiered in 1938, the sense that a small place is intimately connected by ever-widening horizons to the entirety of existence is related to the growing anxieties about war that were gathering at the time. The idea is certainly palpable in Ault’s paintings, where the lone electric light takes on transcendent importance. In the 1946 rendering “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners,” its beams are made literal, almost like the tactile beams of celestial illumination one sees in a Renaissance painting of the Magi or Nativity.
Quoting Ault’s wife, Louise, quoting Nietzsche (“Unless there be chaos within, no dancing star is born”), Nemerov loads this light with more existential freight than it can bear. You can hear harps, horns and pipe organs as his essay builds to its conclusion: “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.”
And yet, perhaps he’s right. A long, consistent look at these relatively little-known paintings is a very rewarding exercise. So is time spent with the other works in the exhibition, paintings that reveal a deep richness of mood and style in the American visual culture of the 1940s. In recent years, the Greatest Generation has been ceremonially sung to its rest with a disturbing mix of sincere gratitude and flights of propagandistic excess. The work in this exhibition — landscapes, film stills, advertising images — are part of an essential archaeology that will lead, eventually, to a fuller sense of what the 1940s meant to artists who rose above the distractions of living to leave a record of feeling. As is so often the case, and very much so in the Russell’s Corners paintings, it is the extraordinary ordinariness of it that makes the deepest impact.
runs through Sept. 5 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets NW, which is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission is free.