No Rosie the Riveter pictures or wartime propaganda posters plaster the walls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new 1940s exhibition. Instead, bleak, empty landscapes dominate the gallery, offering viewers an unexpected take on home-front life during World War II.
“To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” focuses on a lesser-known artist who painted desolate crossroads and stark, snow-filled landscapes. Ault’s paintings cast the era in a gloomy light that has little in common with pop culture’s optimistic take on the American wartime experience.
“This is the 1940s we don’t hear about,” guest curator Alexander Nemerov said. “Once you get below the surface crust of iconic images we all know about, what was it all about?”
For Ault and many of the other artists featured in this exhibition, the 1940s were a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Ault, working in the small town of Woodstock, N.Y., painted images with defined lines and studied precision, creating a sense of order and clarity in a world that was anything but.
“Ault felt deeply aggrieved and wounded by the world, and felt the world was nearing collapse,” Nemerov said. “When the Nazis took Paris, when France was defeated, Louise [his wife] came out on the back porch and found Ault sobbing.”
This bleakness pervades the collection, which centers mainly on Ault’s work but also includes paintings by contemporaries such as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Andrew Wyeth. These artists share a meditative, brooding quality that challenges the more hopeful view of 1940s America found in many familiar films, songs and pictures of the time.
Ault’s devotion to geometry and exactness drives his works, particularly in “January Full Moon,” a view of a barn at moonlight. The brilliantly lit painting highlights the distinct slope of the roof, creating a world at peace.
“Ault’s pictures always have a sense of someone shaping, ordering, structuring as if his life depended on it — which it did,” Nemerov said.
Ault, who suffered from depression and alcoholism before apparently committing suicide in 1948, offers viewers a glimpse into the small, quiet world of Woodstock — a place that seems far removed from the devastation of World War II. From a waterfall in the mountains to his neat and orderly studio, Ault’s paintings capture the loneliness of an isolated existence.
This exhibition, the first major show on Ault in more than 20 years, gathers together his five paintings of Russell’s Corners, a Woodstock crossroads that he painted repeatedly from 1943 to 1948. Four of the five show the scene at night. In these images, he illuminates the darkness by painting a brilliant flash of light emanating from a street lamp.
“There’s gloom, doom, depression, tragedy, you name it,” Nemerov said. “That out of that there is that light, a beckoning and transforming call — you feel thrown off your axis, you see the world in a different way.”
Ault’s paintings are small in scale, especially compared to several of the other artists’ images on display. Hopper’s “Dawn in Pennsylvania” dwarfs Ault’s nearby work, but it does not dominate the exhibition. Instead, Hopper’s inclusion offers a more surrealist take on the time period, which sharpens a viewer’s appreciation of Ault’s realism.
“Ault is almost retiring to a fault in many cases, making small works with small motifs,” Nemerov said. “He had a sense in many ways that nine out of 10 people would walk by. For the one person who would stop and notice, there’d be a considerable gift waiting.”
“To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” runs through Sept. 5. The American Art Museum is planning several free public programs in conjunction with the exhibit, including a film series: “Gaslight” will play April 7, “It’s A Wonderful Life” will be shown April 14, and “The Seventh Victim” will screen May 5. Additional programs will be scheduled for the summer.