The Haunted World of a Great American Artist

For those of my readers in the Kansas City and Athens, Georgia areas of the country, be on the lookout for the exhibition “To Make A World: George Ault and 1940s America”, which recently finished its run at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in the nation’s capital. Although George Ault (1891-1948) is perhaps not quite a household name among American modern artists as are some of his colleagues, such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe, he ought to be better known. His work not only captures a bleaker side of America with which all Americans are familiar, but is also deeply personal and introspective.

Ault is often considered to be a member of the Precisionist movement, which is a distinctively American style of painting that emerged after World War I. It is characterized by a mixture of Realism and Cubism, most often focusing on buildings and landscapes, but sometimes producing unusual mixtures of symbolism and graphic art. The result has a wonderful “feel” of the Art Deco period about it, though it often lacks the glamour we expect of that age. This is art that features, not the world of Gatsby and Daisy’s homes in the Eggs, but rather the Wilsons and their garage in the Valley of Ashes.

While the Precisionists often looked with wonder and appreciation at the rapidly changing landscape around them, Ault did not fit particularly well into this grouping. He abhorred skyscrapers, for example, and gradually came to retreat from the industrial world of New York City, as he found it more and more difficult to function within it. When he settled in the country, it became apparent that Ault suffered from what today would probably be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. His second wife described how he would have to clean the entire house and studio himself, inside and out, from top to bottom before he could sit down to paint. He would also get down on his hands and knees with a pair of lawn-trimming shears along the garden path, and cut back the edge of the grass, in order to have as precise a line as possible.

However Ault had many other demons, not the least of which was his alcoholism, which was brought on by the beginning of such horrendous family tragedies that it staggers the mind to think that he was capable of functioning at all, let alone as an artist. First, one of his brothers and sister-in-law killed themselves in a suicide pact. Then Ault’s mother died after being placed in a mental institution. Ault’s father subsequently died of cancer in 1929, when the family fortune disappeared in the stock market crash. Ault’s two other brothers killed themselves over the following two years.

It is perhaps this psychological profile that, even if we did not know Ault’s family history, we pick up from his paintings, which often have a haunted, foreboding sense about them. His cityscapes are astonishingly devoid of activity, not reflecting the hustle and bustle of urban life, even if we see evidence of human activity such as smoke rising from a chimney or lights on in a window. There is something crystalline and cold about his work; there is a detachment from human emotion that makes us not want to visit the places he is representing.

As Ault’s neuroses deepened and his mood darkened, shutting himself off from his friends and colleagues, his colors became correspondingly darker.  Man in the natural landscape, when he finally got out of the city to try to free himself from this darkness, turned out to be just as oppressive to him as man in the urban landscape. We see a huge drift of snow on the roofline of a house become a menace, as if it was going to trap the people within and smother them. Another painting shows a frozen waterfall in the mountains, cascading over some rocks under a grey sky; Ault paints the frozen spray to look as though it has giant skeletons trapped within it.

Many critics would probably consider Ault’s masterpiece to be his “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners” of 1946, one of a series of paintings he did of this same, lonely rural intersection in Upstate New York. It is a scene which any one of us who has had to walk or drive at night down a country road will be very familiar with. Certainly the clapboard-style architecture of the house and the old, sagging red barn tell us that we are in New England, but with slight variations we can imagine this location almost anywhere in the country, from Maine to Nebraska to Wyoming.

We can see from the orange leaves on the tree peeping around the corner of the house that we are well into autumn. The grass is still tall in the field to the left, meaning it is probably sometime in October, before the first hard freeze will finally kill off anything growing. However there is no sense of joy here in the fall and winter festivals to come: no harvesting, apple cider, trick-or-treating, turkey and stuffing, or Santa Claus.  Instead, we have a sense of isolation, thinking of the impending, harsh winter snows and storms which are going to cut the people who live in the house off from the outside world for months.

On December 30, 1948, on his way home from one of his not-infrequent benders at a local tavern, Ault decided to walk along the icy banks of the local creek, which was swollen from recent, heavy rains. Somehow he ended up in the water, and drowned. Whether he suffered an accident or whether he killed himself we will never know. Because of his family history, it is reasonable to assume that he committed suicide, but I have never been so sure.

Clearly alone amongst the members of his family he was the one with the will and determination to survive and to push on, which makes me question whether his death was intentional. Even if he was encumbered by neuroses and these personal tragedies – the last of which had occurred 17 years earlier, at that point – Ault still managed to go on painting and creating, and making a life for himself. It is a pity Ingmar Bergman never did a film about Ault’s life, for I suspect there would be a great deal of kindred spirit there.

The art of George Ault, while perhaps not what we would call inspirational or indeed aspirational, has a great deal of beauty in its haunted reflections of the American landscape, both urban and rural. The benefit of this traveling exhibition is that more people will be exposed to his particular vision, and that he will become better known. This can only be of benefit to the study and preservation of great American art of the previous century.

“Bright Light at Russell’s Corners” by George Ault (1946)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

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