There is no better introduction to the role of cabarets in modern art – the subject of a new exhibition at the Barbican that will stir and surprise you – than a journey to the Chat Noir.
In the twilight years of the 19th century, this convivial cavern in Montmartre, Paris was where painting and polemic, dance, music, plays and poetry converged.
On any given night, the bohemian, outsider crowd might include the artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, the poet Paul Verlaine or the composer Claude Debussy. Many of them came to experience its shadow theatre, in which fairytale worlds were brought to life using intricately-cut zinc figures behind a brightly-lit screen.
A dozen of these figures – a Pierrot here, a devil there – are strung to the ceiling at the Barbican, pirouetting indolently on their wires in the cool air. Even without the musical score and sets that would originally have accompanied them, they are breathtaking.
The Chat was the brainchild of a failed artist, Rodolphe Salis, who, in 1881, invited others in his creative coterie to use his “cabaret artistique” – as he called it – as a crucible for their respective pursuits.
What began in Paris, soon spread to Vienna, to Berlin and Rome, to London, Mexico, Nigeria, Tehran and beyond. Consequently, the Chat is only one of the cabarets or “nightlife scenes” such as Weimar Berlin or Jazz-era Harlem, to be explored in the exhibition.
Nearly all date from that first half of the 20th century; the product of that peculiar stew of exuberance and despair which characterised the birth of the modern world.
The story that Into the Night means to tell is about cabarets as vital creative spheres rather than merely the places of entertainment we usually think of (though they were certainly those, too). “Be Modern!” read a plaque outside the Chat Noir, outdone by the Bal TicTac in Rome (1921), who had, “If you don’t drink champagne, go away”.
Within this overarching story is a fleet of other interesting ones. Many of the clubs occupied basement sites, for instance, enhancing their sense of seclusion and escape. An otherworldly symbolism prevailed: moons, cats, bats, fairies, veiled dances.
Then there’s the effort that went into their execution. The TicTac designed its own clothes hangers. At L’Aubette in Strasbourg (1928), a high falutin menu included oysters in butter, caviar and tortoise soup.
L’Aubette is one of four cabaret interiors to have been recreated, life size, on the ground floor of the exhibition – you can also experience the Cafe Fledermaus in Vienna (1907-13), Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire (1916), and the Mbari (1961) in Ibadan and Oshogbo, Nigeria.
Both here and on the upper floor, the curators have worked with Caruso St John Architects to produce something best described as a nest of boxes springing constant surprises. In the upper sections, each cabaret or club has its own small, dedicated square, but from them you can look down or across into others.
The set-up creates a visual fugue, intertwining countries, cultures and eras in wonderfully kaleidoscopic fashion. Masks in the El Café de Nadie, Mexico City (1920s) upstairs, for instance, are placed in dialogue with Marcel Janco’s mask in the Cabaret Voltaire below. From Tehran’s Rasht 29 (1966-69) you can hear the sounds of the Cotton Club in Harlem next door. There’s music everywhere, in fact: a cacophony of Debussy, Poulenc, Billie Holliday and Nigerian Highlife.
Are there elements to criticise? Perhaps, in the sense that some of the presentations feel overly earnest, though whether that is down to delivery or the uncompromising nature of the artists who set the cabarets up in the first place, I’m not sure.
I could also grumble about the paucity of objects for some of the displays, but that would be monstrously unfair, because much of it is paper-based and therefore fragile. Lest we forget, a good many of these posters, set and costume designs, musical scores and woodcuts have survived wars, occupations and revolutions.
My greatest discovery was a 1932 hand-drawn map of the night clubs and speakeasies in Harlem. The artist, Elmer Simms Cambell, includes entertainers of the day such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap-dancing down a staircase. Best are his tips, written in tiny script under each club: “Nothing happens before 2am” and “ask for Clarence”. It’s faded, torn and brown with age. It’s also a masterpiece.
Until Jan 19. Tickets: 020 7638 8891; barbican.org.uk