Vol. 11, No. 2,553 - The American Reporter - January 5, 2005

Hominy & Hash

by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- As an Irishwoman who's been to McSorley's, I was drawn to the oil on canvas at the Phoenix Art Museum - artist John Sloan's original work, painted decades before we ourselvles stopped in for a glass of ale sometime in the late Sixties.

If you can believe a reviewer, everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John Lennon tossed back a few at that bar, reportedly the oldest continuously operated saloon in New York City.

I have it on good authority that during Prohibition, McSorley's was a "speakeasy." That word meant the doors were open, but only to a soft voice and a familiar face.

Like artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec leading a parallel life across the ocean, sitting at his usual table at the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub frequented by the high brow and low life with little distinction, painting his Bohemian neighbors brushing elbows with aristocrats, John Sloan painted the real life unfolding around him.

Of this particular painting, it's said "Sloan found it to be a celebration of male companionship." And, in it, we find his philosophy that beauty is found in common things.

At McSorleys, women didn't even have a Lady's Entrance, as in other restaurants of the time; they were not allowed at all. When they were finally welcomed, a hundred years later, no accommodations were made for their sensitivities; a woman had to pass a few urinals to reach the only enclosed commode.

What he saw and what he painted brought realism to the canvas. Not only at McSorley's but in the neighborhood, he found a range of humanity - not as distinctive as the range from aristocrat to Bohemian in Montmartre - the city of sin within what we now call the City of Light, Paris.

They didn't have time for fun and games in "little old New York" in the early part of the 20th Century. What they did was dig! All America's major cities were splitting at the seams with shops, immigrants, factories and offices. All of these workers had to get to work and the tunnels were dug, subways were created five stories down while huge bridges were built across the waterways.

This hustle and bustle fascinated Sloan, and he went from street corner to alley to sketch and then paint what he saw. He became part of a group of eight painters who found the growing city full of vigorous life - but their works were considered unacceptable and vulgar for the sin of painting real life in all its sordid aspects.

Artist Robert Henri, who had taught four of the eight painters, said firmly: "artists should make pictures from life," and the life around them was certainly not a posed portrait. For these artists, this emerging city was, according to John Sloan, "a cosmopolitan palette where the spectrum changed in every side street." [Note: this writer echoes John Sloan almost a century later. New York City is ever changing, ever the same, always wonderful - "a cosmopolitan palette."]

Because this group of artists captured the diversity and the grittiness of the dusty city with its newly emerging society of immigrants, working together for the common good, but not exactly pretty to look at when day was done, the art was judged by the subjects portrayed, not by the artistic talent bringing them to life.

"The working classes," said Robert Henri, spokesman for The Eight later famously called the Ashcan School, "were the most suitable subjects for art," and he considered the artist a social force whose "work creates a stir in the world."

A few of these artists had begun their careers as illustrators for newspapers and magazines. They had a talent for capturing aspects of life about town, back alley or main street. John Sloan said: "When I painted the life of the poor, I was not thinking about them like a social worker - but with the eye of a poet who sees with affection."

And, so, when he looked around him at McSorley's Ale House, what did he see? He saw what he then painted. He saw jovial bartenders, a sumptuous free lunch, camaraderie among the regulars, and his "comfort zone."

When he looked behind the buildings, he immediately sketched what he saw: A 5" x 7" etching called "Night Windows" - showing a woman on the second floor of the tenement dragging a heavy line of clothes through the pulley; in another shadeless window, a woman is either washing or setting her hair; there's a silhouette of a man sitting on the side of the roof.

Following John Sloan were artists seeing life as it was in a new generation. I'm thinking of Edward Hopper, for one, and his painting of a few forlorn people in an all-night diner, hoarding their last cup of coffee, their last cigarette, against daylight and tomorrow. It's real.

When photography took the place of illustrations, something was lost. There could be no doubt about the scene but the poetry, the soul John Sloan looked for and found in his subjects, was gone.

The late Diane Arbus, whose photographs appear in every collection in the world, was a master photographer. Her work disturbs me because her portraits are of people living just out of what we'd call main stream: freaks, midgets, dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists. Is she exploiting them as she aims the camera?

I don't know. It would seem the fascination we have is in looking at her photographs and seeing those very things we always turn away from - not wanting to stare, not wanting to offend. In an article on the late Diane Arbus' work in The Women's Review of Books, I read "we can be fearful and curious and safe all at once. They are Other."

Newspapers of the day dubbed John Sloan the "Spectator of Life." The little etching I mentioned was last shown at the Delaware Art Museum in 1963. That was 12 years after Sloan died and five years before women were served at McSorley's.

Edward Hopper didn't live to see that eventful day, that long overdue milestone for feminists; neither did the great Diane Arbus. These realists, in their own way, show us how to look at life and really see it. At McSorley's, now, their successors really live it, from 11:00am 'til 1:00am every day - and they've been doing it for 150 years, since 1854. But now the door is open to women.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.