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.
To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America
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.