The City at Night



A blog I follow, Danventuretravels, posed the question of what characterises a visit to a city. Well, it goes without saying that you should at least leave the port area, whether ship or plane. And purchase something to consume at a public place, coffee, beer or snack. 

A young man I know, who shall be nameless, took a Mediterranean cruise with some stunning city visits: Rome, Barcelona, Athens etcetera. Asking for a report I got the view from the deck as the port hove into view, the weather and the distant skyline. It turned out that Mark (oops) hadn’t managed to get ashore so beguiling was life on board ship.

For most, though, the advantage and disadvantage of cruises are: you see the sights, but you don’t get the full deal. I have written pieces on cities from such daytrips. Talinn, Helsinki and Stockholm are a few. I saw enough to want to return and sample the nightlife of Talinn and Helsinki. I wouldn’t hurry back to surly Stockholm, though it is an impressive regal city. I would think that you need to see the city at night to get the full picture.

Most paintings I do of places I have been are night time scenes. I do daytime paintings too, and I do go out during the day; I am not a vampire. It does strike me though, that the city comes into its own at night.

Renoir,_The_Umbrellas 2

This scene suggested itself at the start of our great isolation. It called to mind many things urban and attractive, and even a little bit alienating. The umbrellas recalled Renoir’s Les Parapluies. Bunking off school, I’d take a 50something bus across Dublin’s slate sea to the city centre, hiding out at the movies or in Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, now the Hugh Lane. My favourites there were Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window and Renoir’s painting. The painting is specific to its time and place, it manages also to be universally evocative. Those shades of blue and grey, the dappling effect of rain and greenery, the pale complexioned lady and her russet hair, could be captured in a park in Dublin in the rain. The Window breathed with the life and fire of the city at night.

The focus of city centre, swirling lights and traffic, hurrying pedestrians, the language of traffic lights and zebra crossings are of modern times. They are everywhere. I posted a painting of Dublin’s equivalent nexus, College Green last year.

Col Grn

I’m also reminded of a visit to Granada in the rain and snow. Although the Alhambra and Sacromonte are indelible memories, an abiding image of the city came from its streetscapes at night in the rain. I wandered amongst those endless reflections that plunge from the sky to pass through the pavements, no longer solid but a membrane between different worlds. 

IMG_3425What do they do down there? They do much the same as us. Travelling through the city at night. But with a different perspective. The lights have their language, the stained glass sings and silent movies play across gabled ends. 


Jim Morrison sang, more or less, on LA Woman:

Are you a lucky little lady 

in The City of Lights?

Or just another lost angel

in the city at night, City of Night.

Like many drivers, for me the city and the road are often refracted through the music of the Doors. I can think of myself as a fellow traveller. The first time I went overseas was with my parents to Paris in 1971. Going home from Le Bourget my eyes fell across a newspaper in the departure lounge. Front page news of the death of Jim Morrison in the city early that morning. He was twenty seven. I was fifteen. And I was getting out alive.

Whatever memories the photo provoked, however, this particular city was anonymous. Not just in the sense that the city offers perfect anonymity, all the more so at night. But this was a scene I did not know, could not place the photograph. I had never been. Neither I, nor anyone within my ken. All the more reason then, to plunge in and make this the model for my city at night.

As I painted, songs filtered in and out. I wanted to convey that sense of movement and impermanence. That everything is nothing but light. I could be driving through the city at night, or being driven; a passenger without a destination. Iggy Pop wrote the Passenger under the influence of a poem by Jim Morrison, amongst other things. 

Get into the car

we’ll be the passenger

we’ll ride through the city tonight

we’ll see the city’s ripped back sides

we’ll see the bright and hollow sky

we’ll see the stars that shine so bright

the stars made for us tonight

Okay, for peace of mind then, the city lies on the banks of the Danube but is downstream of Budapest. Its name translates as the White City. We call it Belgrade, once capital of Yugoslavia, now capital of Serbia. This is Republic Square, the National Theatre on the right, the National Museum facing us.Will I ever go there? Perhaps someday, when I visit Europe, after the rain.

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Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window never made it to Geneva, and is now in Miami, USA.