You’ve got to serve a purpose

Barbizon – February, 2007

‘Il faut bien servir à quelque chose’ said Paul, adjusting to the unknown interior. 

‘Mais vous pensez vraiment que Sarkozy va gagner les éléctions?’ Asked the barman, who was drying glasses behind the counter. 

Paul took a long swig of beer. Suddenly, a small boy came running round the corner of the bar, dodging in between the chairs and tables. He was playing tag with his sister, who was laughing by the knees of her father, who was standing at the bar, paternally with a pencil behind his ear and a scrap of paper in his hand, occasionally looking out of the large windows overlooking the cobbled streets of Barbizon. 

The children breathed life into the greying décor. A couple, no older than seventeen, wanted to hold hands, but looked into each other’s eyes instead. Newcomers came in from the cold and sat down to take a hot chocolate. Plates of warm food were delivered to a patient table towards the back of the room and set upon like a winter feast.

Paul had just made some money from a recent professional gig and was spending his time gambling in PMUs, second-rate bars in France that serve food and drink to a betting class. Paul, an Englishman, enjoyed unwinding in these spaces, going out for smokes and drinking half pints of cheap beer. Usually he would bet on the horse-racing, but in this bar, he discovered, there was only the bingo to while away the time.

A man wearing a hat had walked in about an hour ago – who could tell? – and was standing left of Paul at the zinc bar. He first ordered syrop au citron and seemed to lose himself in reflection. What Paul didn’t know, being a newcomer, is that the man was an artist and had plenty to consider and reflect on in these strange times.

Eventually, he turned and said hello to Paul, unable to resist his own curiosity for a foreigner. The latter, who respected his seniority, asked him what was what. He replied that he was a painter, trying to catch the minutiae of a village with two centuries of painted history and goodness knows how many of the genuine stuff. 

‘A fine task,’ said Paul with little reflection. He was at that moment occupied with the garish numbers that flashed on the screen and his own choices on the betting slip, but less intensely than the man to his right. 

All of a sudden, one of the children fell over a chair. He had tried to step out of the grasp of his sister, but misjudged the space needed and careered into the table legs. Despite the abrupt accident, he did not burst into tears. The father put down his betting pencil for a moment, ready to pick up the child if necessary. The couple unlaced their hands and stopped their chitter-chatter to look over at the boy to see if he was alright. Even the local drunk turned an eye from his beer to assess the scene. Yet the boy simply looked at his knee, rubbed it and ran off to rejoin his sister. ’T’es un homme fort, toi,’ she said, giggling.

In conversation with the painter, Paul admitted to taking a little break from his work, omitting that he had recently been charged with obtaining information about the forthcoming French elections and had needed to interview some very high personalities. He had come to the countryside to take some fresh air and to march among boulders in this ancient domain. The older replied that he lived there and regularly exhibited paintings in the village’s largest gallery. Paul could not help but be impressed.

The man had a bag by his side, out of which, like some terrible cliché, a brush and palette stuck out. Paul was intrigued by this and asked him to show him what he had in there. “Si vous me payez une bière”, replied the older man.

Paul considered. He didn’t want to betray his naive glee for being allowed to interact with an artist in such close proximity. He didn’t want to engage in too much conversation, for fearing of blurting out something he shouldn’t. And, most importantly, he didn’t want to disturb the people in the bar: in this little corner of France, they talk about guns and the military among themselves. Ostensibly, they do not support art that is not nationally their own. However, in Barbizon, there is something more and the locals have learned to appreciate the artist – in their own way.

“Allez-y,” said Paul and the older man removed from his bag a sketch book and soft crayon, which he handled with the same swift, deft movements with which he dealt with the curious eye of the public. He had painted all over the world, from Japan to the West Coast of the USA and from there further East, always, in some spiral to regain his birth place and to rest his ashes in his homeland, but was stuck in Europe. Why do you think he drank so much?

He and Paul continued their conversation over a cigarette outside and noticed that it had started snowing. It suited the scene perfectly – an artist and a conman inside a rural dive, taking refuge from the winter cold as the snowflakes fell and melted on the cobbles. Paul wanted to ask about the doubling nature of art with its ability to combine the high and the low in one story, deceiving and delivering all in one go. But he was interrupted by the two children, tumbling out of the bar with the sister shouting at her brother, ‘tu es méchant, tu es méchant!’

Back at the bar, Paul asked whether art really was just a big sham, representing not some universal values of human suffering, but a utilitarian production designed to please the masses. But instead of saying anything about it, the artist turned the conversation political, like someone firing a pistol in a theatre. The older man asked whether Paul thought Sarkozy was going to win the elections. He actually had no idea, stranger as he was and despite his so-called profession, so he gave his own two cents and they both returned to their beverages, which were just less than half full.

“C’est l’heure pour moi, je crois” said Paul. 

“Avant de partir, je vous fais votre portrait”, replied the older man. 

Flattered, Paul accepted, thinking his conversation had earned him the honour. After all, passing through an artist town, one has one’s portrait done. He stood as still as a peacock, surveyed the room around him and took a malign pleasure in being scrutinised.

When the portrait was done, proudly displayed on the bar, the other clients examined it, looking at Paul and mostly nodding in approval. He couldn’t work out if they had done this before; even the couple holding hands in a tight embrace broke their attention to snatch a glimpse of the art of Barbizon. Paul felt both intimidated and honoured by this moment, and so he asked for the bill.

When it came, shortly before his taxi back to the station, he offered the older man a beer, who accepted. He clinked his glass, threw the rest of his beer down his throat and strolled out of the café. The couple stood up to pay their bill, silently nodding at the artist, and opened the main doors into the snowing night. The father ushered his children along, telling them to stop playing, and left the brasserie. The artist finally sat back on his chair, raised his glass and said to himself “Il faut bien servir à quelque chose.”

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