Sunday, September 16, 2012

Key West Pirates (Hemingway's Bar)

Key West Pirates, an oil painting on wood panel by Holly Masri, appears at first glance a simple depiction of a bar. The place is Tony's Bar in Key West, Florida. The bar opens onto the street, very unusual for an American bar, where the prejudice against alcoholic consumption generally forces serious drinkers indoors. Two men are drinking at the bar, one seated, the other standing, while a bartender looks on. The most unusual aspect of the painting (and of the actual bar) is the low ceiling, encrusted with thousands of business cards left over the years by tourists.

Key West is the southernmost point of Florida, in many respects a tropical paradise. But the artist has chosen a pallet devoid of pastels. There are no flowers or broadleaf plants to be seen. Instead, the colors are somber. The frame cuts off the bright world of sun and sea. The two customers may be tourists, but their shirts are dark, as is the interior of the bar. Both are brawny and young. One of them has a skull and crossbones on the back of his shirt.

The two men in the bar are not pirates, for this is clearly a modern scene. They wear bermuda shorts, athletic shoes, and tee-shirts. One of them rests his foot on a backpack. They do have long, curly hair that reminds the viewer of 17th century wigs. They are engrossed by something to their right, which the viewer cannot see.

This is a famous bar, where celebrities met and toasted each others' health during the 1930s. At that time it was known as Sloppy Joe's. Its best known habitue was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway arrived in Key West in 1936, when his health was already suffering from war injuries and too much drink. He brought with him friends like the writer John Dos Passos and the artist Waldo Peirce. Peirce also painted a scene in Tony's Bar, with his friend Hemingway sitting at the bar next to Peirce's wife, Alzira, and Peirce himself standing at the right.

The room next door, the room into which Masri's pirates are staring, can be seen in Peirce's painting. It is a dance hall, where sailors dance with pickups and bar girls. Perhaps the woman sitting at the end of the bar is one of those girls, being attended by two sailors in uniform and an elderly gentleman. Masri's pirates are looking at something else, though. The sailors are long gone, the dance hall a memory.

Masri's picture has ghosts, including the ghost of Hemingway and the ghost of the bar that used to be there. It has another theme as well: impostors. Sloppy Joe's Bar moved about a block away after Hemingway left town. It now occupies much larger, much grander premises than the bar depicted by Masri and Peirce. The current Sloppy Joe's, sold to tourists as Hemingway's hang out, does not much resemble the real hang out, now known as Tony's Bar.

Masri's painting captures the atmosphere of a place on the edge of history, where the people and times that made it famous are receding into the past. But Masri is not nostalgic. She depicts the scene honestly, portraying what it has become, a humble respite from the tropical sun that bakes Key West.

Note: Key West Pirates is on sale here.

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