Reprinted from ....
|Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer 2002||
John Sloan's Roofs, Summer Night
by Michael Palmer
|In his 1906 work, Roofs,
Summer Night, John Sloan portrays a scene that stirs me very much--families
sleeping on a tenement roof, trying to escape the heat of a summer's night.
These crowded, airless tenements are the result of our brutal economic
system--the profit system--which the American poet and critic Eli Siegel,
founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, showed so importantly, is
based on contempt; people are seen only as a means of making profit for
way is so different from the moving, deeply respectful perception had by
John Sloan. In this small etching--only 5 by 6-and three-quarter
inches--while there is a sense of intimacy and closeness, there is also
a moving sense of mystery and large meaning. Sloan said:
"I saw people living in the streets and on the rooftops of the city, and I liked their fine, human, animal spirits. I am...interested in the noble commonplace of nature."I once had the superior, contemptuous way of seeing people that is the basis of profit economics. I felt people existed to serve me; I was too good to get involved in what I saw as the messiness of others lives and feelings. I could sit in a restaurant and watch families and people together and be envious, but I preferred watching life from a distance. This contempt made for a dullness and loneliness I thought would always be with me. I learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism an honest, accurate way of seeing the world--an art way of seeing people that has brought me the largest emotions of my life.
In his great 15 Questions "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites," Eli Siegel asks:
"Is there a logic to be found in every painting and in every work of art, a design pleasurably acceptable to the intelligence, details gathered unerringly in a coherent, rounded arrangement? --and is there that which moves a person, stirs him in no confined way, pervades him with the serenity and discontent of reality, brings emotion to him and causes it to be in him?"Sloan's "Roofs, Summer Night" puts these opposites together. The artist presents people lying on these tenement roofs in what seems at first a haphazard fashion, yet there is a definite structure. There are two diagonals--one leading from the left foreground through the line of sleeping figures, and one that brings together persons lying on the right side. The two lines converge at the deepest point of the work and link the people together in a "design pleasurably acceptable to the intelligence." And yet we are also "stirred in no confined way." The darkness of the roof in the center gives a sense that these people are adrift on the sea. The way Sloan has the expanse of roofs going into depth conveys a sense of the multitude these people represent. The white laundry hanging on a line silhouetted against the dark buildings, takes on something of the classical form of the Parthenon. Sloan frames these people in dark and light in a way that gives dignity and lift to their casually sprawled, slumbering bodies.
In Aesthetic Realism classes, Eli Siegel taught me that what I needed most for my life was a real interest in and feeling for people that was kind, respectful, and would enable me to like myself. He said, "If you're true to others, you're true to yourself. You should say, "My attitude to people and how I see them is not good enough and not good enough for me." I am grateful to Mr. Siegel for teaching me how to learn from the beauty of a work of art to see the world and people in a way that makes for genuine self-respect and happiness.
I was affected by the subtle changes in perspective in Sloan's work; we are technically looking downward, but the figures seem to rise--arms and shoulders point upward. A man towards the rear is lying on his back, but his knees and elbows point upwards. We are not looking down on people in this private, unguarded moment--we are looking up. In the foreground, our eye is led in a circular motion from the head of the woman on the left, down to her feet, over to the little girl on the lower right, then up to the man awake and watching above, over to the couple in the middleground, and around to the man with the beard. There is, in all these different figures separated by the dark space of the roof, "a coherent, rounded arrangement."
We also feel "the serenity and discontent of reality." The form of the figure of the woman in the foreground is almost a rectangle, and this abstract quality gives her a dignity and serenity. She is also in the brightest light, yet her face is turned away and she is mysterious too. See how, in the shading of the cloth over her body, there is a mingling of regular cross-hatching and irregular edgy lines, both tentative and energetic, which make for a sense of stir. As the subject is a mingling of serenity and discontent, so is the technique. At every point we see both.
In his biography of Sloan, Van Wyck Brooks writes:
"In most of Sloan's work in black and white, one felt a kindly humor--one of his motto's was "draw with human kindness.These men and women seem linked together in a warm, kind way. There is closeness and distance between the people, making for a drama, a sense of wonder as to the serenity and possible discontent in their lives. Like the artist who is looking, the viewer feels he wants to know more about these persons, as the man on the right, awake and observing, seems to be wondering.
I am so glad for the chance to be learning more from Aesthetic Realism about what kindness truly is, and to have large feeling through seeing how kindness is in the logical arrangement in Sloan’s beautiful etching. The meaning of this is tremendously important for every person.
See Home Page: Aesthetic Realism Foundation