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Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art

Erna Schmidt-Caroll Chansonette (Singer), c. 1928 Pastel crayon on paper


Opening 4 October 2019, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art explores the social and artistic role of cabarets, cafés and clubs around the world. Spanning the 1880s to the 1960s, the exhibition presents a dynamic and multi-faceted history of artistic production. The first major show staged on this theme, it features both famed and little-known sites of the avant-garde – these creative spaces were incubators of radical thinking, where artists could exchange provocative ideas and create new forms of artistic expression. Into the Night offers an alternative history of modern art that highlights the spirit of experimentation and collaboration between artists, performers, designers, musicians and writers such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Loie Fuller, Josef Hoffmann, Giacomo Balla, Theo van Doesburg and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, as well as Josephine Baker, Jeanne Mammen, Jacob Lawrence, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Ibrahim El Salahi.

Focusing on global locations from London to New York, Paris, Mexico City, Berlin, Vienna and Ibadan, Into the Night brings together over 200 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material. 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 a daily programme of live performances and full-scale recreations of selected spaces, such as the multi-coloured ceramic tiled bar of the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna (1907), designed by the Wiener Werkstätte, and the striking abstract composition of the Ciné-bal (cinema-ballroom) designed by Theo van Doesburg for Café L’Aubette in Strasbourg (1926–28).

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, said: “Into the Night casts a spotlight on some of the most electrifying cabarets and clubs of the modern era. Whether a creative haven, intoxicating stage or liberal hangout, all were magnets for artists, designers and performers to come together, collaborate and express themselves freely. Capturing the essence of these global incubators of experimentation and cross-disciplinarity, immersive 1:1 scale interiors will be animated by performance, taking the visitor on a captivating journey of discovery.’

Into the Night begins in Paris, on the eve of a new century, with two thrilling and iconic locations of the avant-garde. The theatrical shadow plays of the Chat Noir 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 singer Yvette Guilbert. The captivating serpentine dances of Loie Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were ground-breaking experiments in costume, light and movement. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in his remarkable series of hand-coloured lithographs. Visitors will encounter the immersive “gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art)” design of the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) in Vienna by the Wiener Werkstätte, where experimental cabaret and theatre productions were staged. The exhibition includes original documentation of Oskar Kokoschka’s exuberant short plays and Gertrude Barrison’s evocative dances.

The Cave of the Golden Calf (1912), an underground haunt in Soho, is evoked through designs for the murals in the space by British artists Spencer Gore and Wyndham Lewis, as well as programmes offering insight into the eclectic performance evenings – advertised at the time as encompassing “the picturesque dances of the South, its fervid melodies, Parisian wit, English humour”. Rumoured to be one of the earliest gay bars in London, it epitomised decadence and hedonism. In Zurich, the radical atmosphere of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) is manifested through absurdist sound poetry and 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 mesmerizing Bal Tik Tak (1921) is summoned by drawings for the club’s interior, capturing the swirling movement of dancers. Also on show are designs for Fortunato Depero’s inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922), which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell, with the motto “Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)”.

A few years later, a group of artists from the radical movement Estridentismo met at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City – the site acted as the centre for their subversive activities. Their first exhibition held at the café in 1924 was a poetic response to the industrial metropolis, with artworks, poems and music by figures such as Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto. Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the Café L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate “deconstruction of architecture”, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. Open 24 hours, the vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

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, with numerous clubs and bars opening in metropolitan cities playing host to heady cabaret revues, daring striptease and chorus lines. Major works by often overlooked female artists such as Jeanne Mammen and Erna Schmidt-Caroll, as well as George Grosz and Max Beckmann, capture the pulsating energy of these nightclubs in Weimar Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. During the same time in New York, the literary and jazz scenes flourished in the neighbourhood of Harlem. Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence’s paintings convey the vibrant atmosphere and complex racial politics of the time, while writing by Langston Hughes and music by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong shed light on the rich 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 clubs’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, the exhibition explores how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic practices, providing a platform for a vibrant range of activities –  including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring regular productions by Duro Ladipo; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and groundbreaking exhibitions by pan-African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Ibrahim El Salahi, Twins Seven Seven and Uche Okeke.

The exhibition is curated and organised by Barbican Centre, London, in collaboration with the Belvedere, Vienna.