Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art

Liberated from the confines of social and political norms, many of the sites provided immersive, often visceral experiences

Opening this October, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art explores the social and artistic role of cabarets, cafés and clubs around the world. The first major show staged on this theme, it features both famed and little-known sites of the avant-garde from the 1880s to the 1960s, creative spaces that were incubators of radical thinking, where artists could exchange provocative ideas and create new forms of artistic expression.

Liberated from the confines of social and political norms, many of the sites provided immersive, often visceral experiences, manifesting the ideals of the artists and audiences who founded and frequented them. The exhibition features full-scale recreations of specific spaces, such as the multi-coloured ceramic tiled bar of the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna (1907), designed by Josef Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstätte, and the striking abstract composition of the Ciné-Dancing designed by Theo van Doesburg for L’Aubette in Strasbourg (1926 – 28).

Into the Night begins in Paris, on the eve of the 20th century, with two iconic locations of the avant-garde: the Chat Noir and the Folies Bergère. The theatrical shadow plays of the former in the 1880s are brought to life through original silhouettes and works that decorated the interior of the cabaret, which acted as a forum for satire and debate for figures such as founder Rodolphe Salis, artist Henri Rivière and composer Erik Satie. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured Loïe Fuller’s captivating serpentine dances at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s in his extraordinary series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, brought together for the exhibition. Visitors will encounter the immersive ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ design of the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) in Vienna by the Wiener Werkstätte, where experimental cabaret productions were staged. The exhibition includes original documentation of Oskar Kokoschka’s exuberant puppet theatre and Gertrude Barrison’s expressionist dance.

The Cave of the Golden Calf (1912), an underground haunt in Soho epitomising decadence and hedonism, is evoked through interior designs by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’ highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. In Zurich, the radical atmosphere of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) is manifested through absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, evoking the anarchic performances by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. This is the birthplace of Dada, where humour, chaos and ridicule reign. Two significant clubs in Rome provide insights into the electrifying dynamism of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s. Giacomo Balla’s mesmerising Bal Tic Tac (1921) is summoned by colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior, capturing the swirling movement of dancers. Also on show are drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. 

A few years later, a group of artists and writers from the radical movement Estridentismo, including Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto, began to meet at the Café de Nadie in Mexico City, responding to volatile post-revolutionary change and the urban metropolis. The ¡30-30! group expressed its values by holding a major print exhibition (partially reassembled here) in a travelling circus tent open to all. Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create L’Aubette (1926 – 28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. 

After a period of restraint in Germany during the First World War, the 1920s heralded an era of liberation and the relaxation of censorship laws. Numerous clubs and bars in metropolitan cities played host to heady cabaret revues and daring striptease; the notorious synchronised Tiller Girls are captured in Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait. Major works by often overlooked female artists such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, as well as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, capture the pulsating energy of these nightclubs and the alternative lifestyles that flourished within them during the 1920s and 1930s. During the same time in New York, the literary and jazz scenes thrived and co-mingled in Harlem, where black identity was re-forged and debated. Paintings and prints 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 range of creative expression thriving within the city.

Into the Night also celebrates the lesser known but highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria. Focusing on two of the club’s key locations in Ibadan and Osogbo, the exhibition explores how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic practices, including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground-breaking 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. Meanwhile in Tehran, Rasht 29 emerged in 1966 as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to freely discuss their practice. Spontaneous performances were celebrated and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art runs at Barbican Art Gallery from 4 October 2019 – 19 January 2020 then tours to the Belvedere, Vienna from 14 February – 1 June 2020

Image: The Ciné-bal (at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg, 1926 – 28 © Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut, donation Van Moorsel

Naila Scargill
About Naila Scargill 238 Articles
Naila Scargill is the publisher and editor of horror journal Exquisite Terror. Holding a broad editorial background, she has worked with an eclectic variety of content, ranging from film and the counterculture, to political news and finance.

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