Saturday, 15 February 2020

Into The Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art

Into The Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art, was an unusual exhibition at the Barbican which I managed to catch before it closed last month. I was intrigued by the premise of a multi-disciplinary exhibition incorporating the specialisms of architecture, interior, graphic, industrial, theatre and costume design. It was a survey of nightclubs and spaces instigated by artists from varying movements and their milieu which captured the zeitgeist for however long the particular movement lasted. I enjoyed discovering how each art movement designed not only the nightclub space itself, but also the graphics for the publicity, costumes for performances, and also fixtures and fittings for the spaces according to the aesthetics and artistic ideology of their movement. These artist-designed spaces appear to have been a great escape for the art crowds that they were created for, and safe spaces for them to be free from the restrictions of societal norms where they were able to indulge in all manner of decadent behaviours. This freedom of expression gave rise to new and experimental forms of art in dance, plays, poetry and film. The upstairs galleries of the Barbican were devoted to artwork and artefacts of these spaces, whilst the downstairs section of the Barbican galleries faithfully recreated some of the actual cabaret interiors themselves. It was enlightening to learn more about well known nightclubs such as the Chat Noir in Paris, and Berlin's Weimar period clubs, and to also discover the history of the more obscure nightspots such London's Golden Calf, and Italy's Bal Tic Tac, and Cabaret Diavolo. I personally found it a shame that the section devoted to the nightclubs of Harlem didn't evoke the excitement and energy of the jazz and dance scene of the period, and so wasn't as comprehensive as it could have been. Still, it was a rare chance to view the paintings of Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson who's works are seldom seen in the UK.

Vienna Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907-13

Cabaret Fledermaus was created by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), who were a collective of artists and designers who wanted to create a space to stimulate the senses where none of the arts were excluded, and champion craftsmanship skills. The cabaret was built around live performance so there were plays, shadow theatre, avant garde dance, live poetry and music. The Wiener Werkstätte designers created everything from the furniture to the graphics and stationery, as well as performers costumes.

Rome Bal Tic Tac & Cabaret del Diavolo, 1921-1922

The Italian Futurist movement dictated that art and the environment should reflect the speed of the machine age, so when Giacomo Balla was commissioned to design the interior of the Bal Tic Tac his design incorporated vivid intersecting shapes to reflect the energy and movement of jazz music. Fortunato Depero designed the rival space of
Cabaret del Diavolo in the same neighbourhood. The aim was to turn the lower club space of the hotel in which it was housed into a version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Three levels of the space were turned into Dante's realms of the dead: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). Depero designed every aspect from the furniture and textiles to the coat-hangers and membership cards.

Mexico City Café de Nadie & the Carpa Amaro, 1920s

The Café de Nadie (Nobody's Café) in Mexico City became a meeting place for the avant-garde Estridentismo (Stridentism) movement. Artists sought to overturn conservatism and return to art formed by popular traditions. In April 1924 Café de Nadie hosted the first group exhibition which included performances, poetry, music, masks, woodcuts and paintings. I really enjoyed the inexpensive woodcuts which evoked happy memories of a visit to Mexico in the 90s.

Strasbourg L'Aubette, 1928

L'Aubette was created by the artists Sophie Taueber-Arp, Jean (Hans) Arp and De Stijl protagonist Theo van Doesburg, and was set in an eighteenth century former army barracks. It included a cinema/dancehall, bar, tea room, and billiards room. Van Doesburg was lead designer of the space using colourful geometric abstraction on the walls and furniture to create dynamic diagonal lines representing the movements of dance on the walls, floor and ceiling.

Paris Loïe Fuller, 1890s

Fuller was a trailblazer who set Paris alight with her radical experiments in dance, costume and lighting. She performed at the famous Folies Bergère club and entranced artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Lumière brothers. Fuller's important body of work has featured in this blog before here and here.

Paris Chat Noir, 1880s-90s

The legendary Chat Noir appeared in 1881 and was the most famous of the cabarets of the time in the Montmatre area. The interior contained many pieces of art by important artists of the day, and entertainments included poetry performances, satirical songs, and political debate. A later incarnation of the Chat Noir featured artworks by no lesser talents than Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec and a shadow theatre. These shadow theatres featuring hand-coloured glass sheets and zinc silhouettes prefigured early cinema. 

Berlin Weimar Nightlife, 1920s-30s

The nightclubs and cabarets of Berlin were born from the horrors of World War One and the collapse of the German Empire. Social change saw the relaxation of censorship and the rapid growth of the entertainment industry. Artists Max Beckmann and George Grosz caricatured the bar and nightclub scene. Liberated women were given the right to vote in 1919 and cut their hair into short bobs and wore masculine clothes. Jazz music provided a soundtrack for a decadent scene fuelled by drugs and alcohol. The scene was well documented by Chhrister Isherwood's I Am A Camera, and the film Cabaret.

Ibadan & Osogbo Mbari Clubs, 1961-66

Following liberation from colonial rule in the 1960s Nigerian clubs became centres of modernism and creativity attracting artists, writers and musicians. 'Mbari' is an Igbo word for 'creation'. Like the ethos of Café de Nadie in Mexico, the Mbari clubs creativity was rooted in indigenous traditions and local Nigerian mythology with an eye on Western modernism. As with the clubs in other cultures interior decoration was created by artists such as Uche Okeke with abstract Igbo themes, and exhibitions of art, live music, dance and poetry readings were also staged.

The lower level area of the Barbican gallery was given over to the 1:1 scale recreation of some of the actual nightclub/cabaret spaces.

 Chat Noir

Cabaret Fledermaus


Ibadan Mbari club

London Cave of the Golden Calf, 1912-14

Cave of the Golden Calf, or The Cabaret Theatre Club, was founded by Austrian impressario Frida Strindberg, and was to be found just off Regent Street. Its manifesto aimed to deliver 'a gaiety that does not have to count with midnight. We want surroundings, which after the reality of daily life, reveal the reality of the unreal.' The interiors were decorated by the murals and paintings of Spencer Gore, Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein depicting exotic landscapes and dancers. There was also an Eric Gill sculpture of a golden calf in the foyer. The cabaret's programme included shadow theatre, Morris dancing and song.

Tehran Rasht 29, 1966-69

Rasht 29 was a private club founded by architect Kamran Diba, artist Parviz Tanavoli and musician Roxana Saba for Tehran's artistic community. There was a studio for visiting artists and avant-garde film screenings, poetry readings and music. The creatives here based their work around Iranian traditions and were also influenced by Western modernism and particularly Pop Art to forge new visual styles.   

Harlem Nightclubs, Jazz Clubs and Cabarets, 1920s-40s

Harlem became home to African American migrants from the American south and spawned a wealthy scene of creativity from artists, writers and musicians which became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The works produced challenged the norms of racial and sexual stereotypes. Central to this creativity were the nightclubs and the jazz music for which Harlem became famous. The Cotton Club became the most famous of these spaces and hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. Despite these stellar names from the community, black customers were denied entry and had to create their own entertainment in smaller spaces and private homes.

Into The Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art
closed 19th January
Barbican Centre
Silk Street