If you haven’t already heard, the art gallery at Barbican Centre has undergone a visual metamorphosis; and up until January 19th, 2020, we have a rare opportunity to gain more than just a keyhole view into some of the most socially and artistically significant cabaret clubs and cafés of the modern period.
Into the Night is an ambitious new exhibition that aims to lift the lid on some of these bohemian haunts, dating back to the late 19th century and leading up until the 1960‘s and turn-of-the-century Europe.
Through a colourful melange of original artwork and other paraphernalia, this show seeks to highlight the pivotal role these intimate and informal spaces played as hubs for painters, writers, architects, designers and musicians alike.
Even amid tempestuous backdrops of war or unrest, patrons could hang their woes from social and political oppression up with their coats at the door; rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with other likeminded individuals, irrespective of class, gender or race.
Such establishments proved ripe environments for avant-garde movements like Dadaism and Futurism to flourish, this in itself an attestation to the legacy these public spaces have had on the contemporary arts as we know it.
‘Challenging traditional forms of expression, the iconic cabarets of the artistic avant-garde were synonymous with creative revolution and a belief in new ideals’.
-Florence Ostende (Curator)
With a cosmopolitan medley of work on display throughout both levels of the gallery, this impressive exhibition broadly encompasses artistic enclaves from major cities around the world you might expect to see like London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Rome and Vienna.
Into the Night looks beyond these frontiers too, with perhaps lesser-known creative hotspots like Tehran, Mexico City and Ibadan included (deservedly so, as you will see) into the mix.
Whilst the upper level of the gallery has been categorically arranged and dedicated to a particular cabaret or club, downstairs one has the additional opportunity to immerse themselves in the full-scale interior recreations of some of the more notable or distinguishable spaces of the period.
Here you can expect to see the various hanging shadow puppets that were made famous by Henri Riviére in Paris’s Chat Noir, the motif-designed ceramic tile interior of the Viennese bar that was conceived by the Wiener Werkstätte for Cabaret Fledermaus, or a replica of the Mbari artists and writers clubs found in Ibodan and later in Osogbo, Nigeria.
On top of all this, the exhibition also features a soundscape created exclusively for the show by studio hrm199 and British artist Haroon Mirza, plus the kaleidoscopic bar will come alive in the evenings, serving classic tipples to the public, hosting live jazz performances, and holding special exhibition tours in these spaces too.
‘Specially conceived interiors and dynamic programmes of live performances gave rise to total sensory experiences’.
-Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican London.
For a generation whose only concern seems to be whether or not their local café offers free wifi or a dairy alternative, it’s hard not to understate the important role these spaces played as sources for inspiration, as avenues for creatives to connect and engage, and as environments for artists to inevitably push the boundaries with experimentation.
And this visceral yet elusive magic is precisely what they have attempted to bottle for Into the Night; a glorious gallimaufry of sights and sounds from a not-too-distant world away that is a sheer joy for the senses.
What is on offer is a rare opportunity to see over 300 of these works together (some even on public display for the first time), including original sketches, paintings, prints, wood and linocuts, tapestry, figurines and puppets. The sheer scale of this work is almost all-encompassing, not excluding everything from programs and guides, literary journals, architectural and interior designs, costumes, furnishing, accessories, still photographs, film and archival material.
As one meanders through the upper level of the gallery they may instantly recognise some of the more iconic images; like the black cats that were popularised in the lithography and large painted canvases for perhaps the most celebrated of all locations of the avant-garde, Paris’s famed Chat Noir, focusing here on it’s early days in the 1880’s when it was established in Montmartre by the struggling artist Rodolphe Salis.
Salis’s bold foretelling of this new space as ‘the centre of the world’ would ring truer than perhaps he himself even envisaged, as many budding artists, poets, writers and composers congregated there regularly, emerging as one of the focal points of the arts at the close of the 19th century.
As well as the early Surrealist artists and the handful of parodical, anti-bourgeois writers known as the Incohérents, this part of the exhibition charts the work of artists Henri Riviére, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Riviére took silhouetted shadow theatre from a once traditionally rudimentary art to amuse children, and transformed it into a sophisticated show of moving images, theatrical effects and sound that was a precursor to cinema.
The work of Toulouse-Lautrec on the other hand, is shown here in a series of vivid hand-coloured lithographs which capture the great Miss Loïe Fuller’s signature Serpentine Dance.
‘She blends with the rapidly changing colours which vary their limelit phantasmagoria of twilight and grotto, their rapid emotional changes- delight, mourning, anger; and to set these off, prismatic, either violent or dilute as they are, there must be the dizziness of soul made visible by an artifice…’
The exhibition then moves to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, namely the Cabaret Fledermaus, which was designed by the Wiener Werkstätte and served as a place to stage experimental cabaret productions, theatre and dance. Here one can see an array of colourful illustrations on posters and programs, along with sleek furnishings and design items from tables at the bar.
At the dawn of the first World War, it may be of news to some that there existed one of the most lavish hedonistic enclaves for cabaret and the arts right here in London, off Regent Street, England’s ‘first and only‘ artistic cabaret.
The Cabaret Theatre Club, or the Cave of the Golden Calf was modeled on the famous cabarets of Europe, and built especially for this purpose… with detailed interior designs by artists Spencer Gore and Wyndham Lewis.
From there the exhibition follows the influx of exiled artists and creatives as they relocated to neutral Switzerland during wartime, forming the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, considered the birthplace for the Dada movement.
This was also the radical arena where absurdist poetry, obstreperous performances and unconventional puppetry was performed in front of uproarious audiences, the ideal medicine for the pacifists that were trying to escape the catastrophic lunacy of the war.
The postwar decade of the 1920’s seems to be one of which the avant-garde movements flourished; mobilising in Western Europe, and even spreading through pockets of the Americas. Here the journey leads us across the Mediterranean where a pair of clubs in Rome were putting their own abstract take on the industrialist backdrop of the rapidly modernising world, with the dynamic new movement of Futurism dominating the vibrant interiors of the Bal Tic Tac and the Cabaret Del Diavolo.
The abstract murals of whirling dancers created by designer and artist Giacomo Balla for Bal Tic Tac, and the wonderfully devilish sketches and prints inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy by Fortunato Depero are the standout pieces here.
Our attention momentarily shifts across the Atlantic and into the cosmopolitan epicentre of post-revolution Mexico City. From the Café de Nadie, or ‘Nobody’s Café’ a group of radical new thinkers and creatives known as Estridentismo (Stridentism), routinely converged to discuss politics and social issues, with bold new artists like Ramón Alva de la Canal and Manuel Maples Arce producing sketches, paintings and woodcuts that reflected the turbulent period from which they were active.
‘The Estridentistas did not forsake the prevailing nationalist tenor of the 1920’s, however; rather, they considered their vision of modern Mexico as representing a new social democracy’.
-Lynda Klich (‘Into the Night’ Publication)
The tail-end of the 1920’s gave rise to the Weimar Clubs and Cabarets of Berlin, and a reinvented military barracks in Strasbourg, later named L’Aubette, inspired by the term ‘á l’aube’ (at dawn), or changing of the guard. Designers like the Dutch avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg envisioned new and innovative ways to visualize space; with his aspiration to ‘place humans inside painting, instead of in front of it’ coming to life in his design work for L’Aubette.
After the social and financial devastation of the 1st World War, Berlin- the country’s capital at the time, underwent drastic political change, and as a result many of it’s citizens enjoyed the freedom and liberation of relaxed censorship restrictions which paved the way for a bustling nightlife that showcased daring cabarets and racy striptease performances.
Artist’s like Jeanne Mammen, Otto Dix and Karl Hofer’s depictions of patrons and performers, including pioneering cabaret artist Valeska Gert, or the famous Tiller Girls capture the exuberant and excessive indulgence that these daring clubs were frequently awash with.
The latter road of Into the Night takes us on a detour through New York City between the 1920’s-40’s, and to the swinging jazz clubs and cabarets of the Harlem Renaissance. Here we see how black identity was being reinvented or rather rediscovered, with a thriving cultural push for the literary arts and live performance.
Lively illustrations, prints and canvases by artists like Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson, plus poems by James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes give one a sense of the spirited vitality that made such establishments the inspiration for many in the decades that followed.
‘The best of humanity’s recorded history is a creative balance between horrors endured and victories achieved, and so it was during the Harlem Renaissance’.
From here the journey takes an unexpected leap to Africa and the Persian Gulf, where the Mbari Clubs of Ibodan and Osogbo in Nigeria, and the private members club Rasht 29 in the Iranian capital of Tehran were notably active in the decade of the 1960’s.
For the newly established Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, the country’s newfound independence from British colonial rule galvanized the group to create a space that would provide a platform for themselves as well as other artists to re-explore their roots and heritage through creative practice.
This included a wealth of live performance, including theatre, dance, music and poetry readings. Some notable work to see here are the various sketches and paintings by Colette Omogbai, Valente Malangatana Ngwenya, and the multi-faceted artist Twins Seven-Seven. Here one can also see some wonderful archival footage of the artists in action too.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, Rasht 29 was a hub for music, poetry, contemporary art, and experimental film; with the three-storey building frequented by filmmakers, writers, musicians and painters well-known on the local art scene who used the space to perform or exhibit their work, as well as to freely exchange ideas and discuss the arts.
With the rise of psychedelic rock and the British invasion of bands in the 1960’s, Rasht 29 was a place that many could come to hear this new and exciting new wave of music from the west. Artists like Parviz Tanavoli, Sadegh Tabrizi and Faramarz Pilaram’s work can be seen up close here, an eclectic mix of painting, watercolour and sculpture that showcases the diversity and richness of this region at the time.
Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art
Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK
4th October 2019 – 19th January 2020
Article written by Sonny Arifien for Privilege of Legends