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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cafe Alcazar

Where do artists go to hang out? If you asked that question in most communities today, or even most cities, you'd be met with a shrug or a blank stare. Although one might expect to hear of some colorful neighborhood bar or pub, one might also be quite disappointed. Actually, few artists today hang out anywhere like that. Instead, quite likely, their favorite hangout would be their own studio in front of a glowing rectangle and the familiar blue and white screen of Facebook or some such other social networking site. They might still be  chatting with their like minded friends but there would be no amiable bartender serving frosty mugs of brew--maybe a can of beer from the fridge in the kitchen. And the friends? They might well be thousands of miles away under similar circumstances.

Contrary to popular belief, given the enormous quantity of work many famous and historic artists produced during their lifetimes, they didn't paint twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They ate, slept, and relaxed at the end of a hard day's work the same as the rest of us (painters or otherwise). Usually such periods of relaxation involved a small cafe where they took their meals, drank their wine, and met and talked with fellow artists. The Impressionist had their Guerbois; Picasso and his friends the els Quatre Gats; the New York School, the Cedar Tavern; and in the tiny village of Arles in the south of France there still stands today The Cafe Alcazar.

Cafe Terrace at Night,
1888, Vincent van Gogh
The address is number 2 place Lamartine. Except for it's two most famous customers it was not really much of an artists' hangout. In large part its clientele consisted of ordinary farm workers, a few merchants, government workers, and some prostitutes. It was not a pretty place. The colors were predominantly green, browns, rather garish yellows, made all the more so by the primitive electric lights hanging from the ceiling. There was a billiard table, a bar, crude tables, chairs, and no discernible decor. It was a place, as the tavern song says, "...where everybody knows your name." And speaking of names, its main claim to fame today is Vincent Van Gogh and his sometimes friend, Paul Gauguin. Here these two ate, drank, argued, fought, and joked with the waitresses, town drunks and prostitutes. Here they relaxed and took the edge off a grinding, precarious daily existence in which poverty and emotional instability were never far removed.
The Night Cafe, 1888,
Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh painted the place on a couple occasions. The more famous Yellow House, which he also painted, was nearby. It was destroyed during WW II bombing, but his  paintings of the area give a good feel for what the place must have been like 120 years ago. Vincent also painted many of the people who frequented the tiny tavern, including his good friend and postman, Joseph Roulin, his wife, also Marie Ginoux, wife of the owner of the place, and some of the young ladies he met there.  But it is his haunting depiction of the bistro's deserted, lonely interior  at night, after all the patrons had gone, that is our most lasting impression of the Cafe Alcazar.  It is a place, Van Gogh said, "...where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit a crime...  So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house."

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