Cabarets and Clubs
A new exhibition at the Barbican Centre, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art casts a spotlight on a hotbed of creative and radical thinking from the 1880s to the 1960s
Picture the scene – a dark room, smoke fills the air, experimental poetry is being read in one corner, whilst in another, a group of artists passionately discuss the issues of the day – welcome to the world of the first cabaret clubs!
The story begins in Paris in the late 1880s at the opening of the iconic Chat Noir, which immediately attracted a group of radical young writers and artists called Les Hydropathes (“those who are afraid of water – so they drink only wine”) – sounds like our kind of club! Founded by journalist Émile Goudeau, its regulars included Henri Rivière, Eric Satie, August Strindberg and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The club was well known for its shadow plays and was decorated with swirling silhouette motifs.
Vienna, and 1907 saw the opening of Wiener Werkstätte’s Cabaret Fledermaus. The idea was that the visitor should encounter a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total work of art) and the interior was decorated accordingly. The club staged experimental productions including Oskar Kokoschka’s exuberant puppet theatre and Gertrude Barrison’s expressionist dance performances.
The Cave of the Golden Calf (1912) in Soho epitomised decadence and hedonism, with the interior featuring designs by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill as well as Wyndom Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for eclectic performance evenings, which were described as ‘Parisian wit, English humour’. Cabaret Voltaire followed in Zurich in 1916 and is most famous for being the birthplace of Dada, where humour, chaos and ridicule reigned. Absurdist poetry and fantastical masks were part of anarchic performances by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hemmings and Marcel Janco.
In Rome, two clubs provide us with insights into Futurism in Italy. Giacomo Balla’s design for the interior of Bal Tic Tac (1921), captured the swirling movement of dancers, and also on show at the exhibition are drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922), which had three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell – the club’s motto being ‘Tutti all inferno!!!’ (Everyone to hell!!!). Who wouldn’t want a night out there?
In South America, radical movement Estridentismo met at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café9 – 1923) in Mexico City and included painter Ramón Alva de la Canal, poet Manuel Maples Arce and artist Germán Cueto, and the ¡30-30! group held a major print exhibition there, which is partly reassembled at the exhibition.
Meanwhile in Strasbourg, L’Aubette (1926-28) was conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, the vast building housing a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.
The 1920s saw an era of liberation and relaxation of censorship laws in Germany and as a result numerous clubs and bars played host to heady cabaret revues and daring striptease; the notorious synchronised Tiller Girls are portrayed in Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait. Overlooked female artists such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse- Wächtler, as well as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, captured the pulsating energy of these nightclubs and the alternative lifestyles that flourished within them.
And in New York, the literary and jazz scenes thrived and co-mingled in the predominantly African-American neighbourhood of Harlem. Works by Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence convey the vibrant atmosphere and complex racial and sexual politics of the time, while poetry by Langston Hughes and early cinema featuring Duke Ellington shed light on the rich range of creative expression thriving within the city.
The exhibition also celebrates the lesser known but highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria. Two venues served as laboratories for post-colonial artistic practices, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities including open-air dance and theatre performances, Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.
Also in 1966 Rasht 29 in Tehran emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to freely discuss their practice. Works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge with spontaneous performances taking place while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and The Beatles played constantly – radical for its time.
Into the Night – Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art runs from 4th October 2019 to 19th January 2020 and is curated and organised by Barbican Centre, London, in collaboration with the Belvedere, Vienna.