From 1939 to 1945, the Second World War shattered the world. Nations and their people were plunged into the global conflict, deprived of calm stability in their daily lives. Understanding this clash and its ramifications requires not only looking at military alliances and the theater of war, but also the human toll. The psychological impact of the war shaped canvases produced during and after the war, including an exceptional recent addition to the Birmingham Museum of Art’s collection, George Copeland Ault’s oil on canvas painting, Memories of the Coast of France. In this alluring, mysterious canvas, Ault created a surreal scene that explored his personal feelings about the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
Ault was born in Ohio but moved to England at a young age with his family. While living in England his family spent their summers in France at Cap Gris-Nez in the Pas-de-Calais. Although he returned to America as a teenager, these summers remained with Ault throughout his life. His wife Louise recalled, “He talked to me of those boyhood summers in Brittany, Normandy, and Picardy … He still kept a piece of Quimper, a little cream pitcher from that time, that place.”
In 1937, Ault and his wife moved to Woodstock, New York, a thriving retreat for artists. Ault’s most highly regarded canvases were made during his time in Woodstock, in a moment when he found new heights of linear clarity in his paintings even as he fell into deep personal despair. Ault’s suffering grew from personal psychological challenges, but he was also deeply troubled by World War II. The paintings he created in Woodstock are precise, still, and desolate, even as they brim with an awareness of the overwhelming carnage in Europe. Of the day France fell, Louise wrote:
I knew he would not paint … there was little to say, the thought—Paris in the hands of Germans!—could not be uttered. … Next day, a serene sunny day, he worked silently, but thinking, I could be certain, of Paris. Suddenly, he jumped away from his easel and went out the back door. A moment later through the window I saw him sitting on the porch steps, face buried in his hands; I found him sobbing.
Just as Ault experienced this personal trauma, he painted Memories of the Coast of France.
The painting represents a beach on a bright day under a sky animated by anthropomorphic clouds. A lone nude woman sits on a rock amid the tide pools, before a wrecked ship and a surreal rock arch. Memories of the Coast of France is both an explicit reference to Ault’s childhood summers in France and a reaction to the German occupation of this familiar space. The painting evokes the look of a wartime French beach, with the wrecked boat and its leaning posts recalling the carnage and anti-landing obstacles at Normandy. Although the scene is bright, it is as desolate as his most famous nocturnes from this period. Look for this painting in the American gallery, where it was recently installed.