Edited by Florence Ostende with Lotte Johnson

Prestel & Barbican Art Gallery. 344 pages. £45. ISBN 978-3-7913-5888-8


An exhibition at The Barbican, London, 4th October, 2019 to 19th January, 2020

reviewed by Jim Burns

There is something enticing about the idea of cabarets, clubs, and cafés where writers, artists, musicians, comedians, and a variety of entertainers got together in Paris, Berlin, New York, and various cities to perform, talk, drink, and meet others with similar tastes and interests. Cities is the key word, perhaps, because it needs a concentration of the people concerned in sufficient numbers to make up a regular clientele with enough money to enable the cabaret or whatever to survive. It has to be said that many clubs, cafes and cabarets didn’t survive on a permanent basis. If they did it was sometimes at the expense of losing their original character and becoming merely fashionable places where the well-to-do gathered to see and be seen.

It is a fact that, in any case, most cabarets and clubs weren’t opened with the intention of providing  homes where groups of impoverished bohemians could congregate, keep warm, and while away the day for the price, if they had it, of a single coffee. There are stories of legendary café owners who had a fondness for struggling painters and poets and would accept a painting or a poem as payment for a drink or even a meal, but they were few and far between, and most preferred people who settled their bills with cash.

The strictures about attracting people who had money can be particularly applied to cabarets.  Some clubs and cafés could, perhaps, get by with a lesser income, and cafés could pick up passing trade. But a cabaret often had to hire performers, unless it could draw on the voluntary talents of some of its customers, and also needed to provide suitable decorations and fittings. Again, these might well have been designed by artists and architects who were commissioned to carry out the necessary work, or were known to the owners of the cabarets involved.

There is an informative chapter on the Cave of the Golden Calf (also known as the Cabaret Theatre Club) which operated in London between 1912 and 1914. The iconoclastic artist and writer, Wyndham Lewis, was involved in decorating the premises, as were painters like Spencer Gore and Charles Ginner, then active as members of the Camden Town Group. Some of the murals appear to have depicted “exotic landscapes and frenzied dance”. The term “Futurist” was often used to refer to them, but as Jo Cottrell’s excellent essay points out, it was, for the press, a “catch-all label for artists experimenting with the avant-garde”. A real Futurist, the redoubtable Filippo Thommaso Marinetti, did perform at the Cabaret.  The person behind the establishment was Frida Strindberg, one-time wife of the playwright August Strindberg, and the woman “once described as one of the inspirations behind Strindberg’s tirades against women in general”.

The problems of establishing any kind of unusual activity in Britain, especially in the wake of the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde, when “outside influences” were detected at work, were highlighted by newspaper reports “revealing an underlying English reticence towards the foreign”. These reports attracted the wrong kind of attention, with the result that “there was soon a notable shift in the make-up of the club’s clientele”. Those “it was intended to attract could no longer afford to keep it up. The vulgar stockbroking element soon preponderated”. There were police raids. ostensibly connected with the licensing laws, and financial problems, and the club closed in 1914. Frida Strindberg disappeared to America, and it’s said that “many of the artists were never paid”.

Financial problems also brought an end to the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna, though it did stay in business from 1907 to 1913. Lavishly decorated, it was created by a group of artist and designers, and set out “to stimulate the senses through a synthesis of modern architecture, painting, poetry, music and dance”.  It had a “spectacular bar” and “meticulous attention was paid to everything from the ashtrays and stationery to the silver pins worn by the waiting staff”. It’s obvious that, whatever ideals there were about providing space for “ease, art and culture”, it would be necessary to draw in a well-heeled clientele. But it did also employ the talents of a wide range of writers, musicians, and artists, including Klimt and Kokoschka. It is suggested that some of the performances had aspects that were akin to what was known as Dada a few years later.         

The ambitions of those who opened a club or cabaret often did outstrip the realities of making it pay. L’Aubette in Strasbourg was designed to incorporate “a cinema-cum-dancehall, a tea-room, a cabaret and a billiards room, as well as bars, restaurants and ballrooms”. Sophie Taueber-Arp, Hans Arp, and Theo van Doesburg (from the Dutch De Stijl movement) were all involved with creating what is described as “a dynamic and interdisciplinary experience under one roof”, which sounds horribly like the kind of description used to extol the virtues of contemporary shopping centres incorporating cinemas, shops, bars, restaurants and anything else designed to pull in crowds. It’s interesting to note that the public did not appear to take kindly to the interior decorating: “Although a landmark in architectural history, the radical designs of L’Aubette were not well received by its local public. After less than a decade, the interiors were altered”.

Despite the involvement of Sophie Taueber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg, and Hans Arp, it could be that the L’Aubette project was never going to be suited to a link between artistic invention and creation, and popular appeal. I always nurse an underlying notion that all such experiments are more likely to take place in smaller locations and will incorporate fewer people than are likely to be found in a large complex. The fascinating (because it largely charts unknown territory for most people in Britain) look at the activities of writers and artists in Mexico City in the Twenties and Thirties seems more relevant. And it’s interesting to note that they clustered around cafés and not cabarets. A café suggests a more-open area (the description of a painting reproduced in the catalogue mentions the café requisites – “coffee cups, a book, and the smoke that emanates from the pipe in the artist’s self-portrait”), whereas cabarets and clubs seem to imply membership, or at least entrance limited by money, dress, or other signs of affluence, and often class.

The Café de Nadie “provided a gathering place for the writers and artists central to the avant-garde movement Estridentismo (Stridentism)” which “set out to overturn artistic conventions, developing forms rooted in popular tradition as well as the modern industrial city”. They had a slogan – “Chopin to the electric chair”, which was in the same spirit as the Italian Futurists who made loud pronouncements about rejecting the past and burning down libraries and museums. Mexico had undergone an extremely violent revolution between 1910 and 1920, and the mood of young writers and artists reflected this fact. A later, more socialist-inclined group, called itself i30-30! (a “popular rifle cartridge”) and carried out its events in a large tent named The Carpa Amaro, “a travelling tent used for low-cost popular entertainment”. In this way they could take their exhibitions and performances to working-class and peasant audiences outside Mexico City. Their activities were frowned on by conservative elements in the government, and they were harassed by the authorities, and their publications censored.

I mentioned the Futurists earlier, and their presence in Rome in 1921 and 1922 centred around the Bal Tic Tac and the Cabaret del Diavolo. The artist Giacomo Balla was the designer for the Bal Tic Tac and his intention was to “reflect the speed of the machine age”.  It was “one of the earliest places in Rome to champion jazz music and became a hit with fashionable society”. Another Futurist, Fortunato Depero, designed the Cabaret del Diavolo, and used Dante’s poem, The Divine Comedy, as his inspiration. It’s easy to see how it would appeal to the wealthy and those who wanted to appear up-to-date and be seen in the right places: “The night-club was constantly packed with members of  the Roman and international nobility, as confirmed by reports and reviews”.

If this was the case, why did both establishments have only a limited lifespan? It would appear that the Cabaret del Diavolo lost its impetus when its initial aim to function primarily as a cabaret was changed. But I wonder if the rise of Fascism in Italy in the 1920s may have had an effect? Revolutionary movements, whether of the Left or the Right, tend to take exception to anything they can’t easily control. It’s true that some artists and writers among the Futurists did ally themselves with Fascism, at least in its early days, but even so, art which challenged Mussolini’s taste for classical sculpture, and poems which didn’t exalt the glory that was Rome, would not have been popular. And policemen are always suspicious of places where people get together to be entertained in unorthodox ways or take an interest in anything outside a clearly-defined and widely-understood framework.

This was certainly true of post-revolutionary Russia as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on power, and began to impose controls on the subjects writers could write about and painters paint. The early days of the 1917 Revolution had seemed to promise opportunities for freedom and experimentation. but those hopes would soon be shattered as Civil War and shortages descended on the country. The poets and painters, and their audiences, who met at the Café Pittoresque in Moscow in 1918/19, huddled in their hats and coats in the unheated premises and dined on “sour milk and little pies of frost-damaged potatoes”.

Despite the adverse conditions, poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky (active at the Stray Dog Cabaret in  St, Petersburg before the First  World War), Vasily Kamensky, and David Burliuk performed their Futurist-influenced works (“Futurism was the aesthetic equivalent of social-anarchism”, according to them), and a multitude of artists, including Aleksandr Rodchenko,  Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexey Rybnikov, participated in providing lighting effects, interior decorations, paintings, and sculptures. For a time, at least, it must have seemed that some of the dreams about what a revolution would bring might be changing to reality.

The writing was on the wall, however, and “the café’s private ownership – and its genteel Francophile name – evidently no longer seemed appropriate for the fervid post-revolutionary climate”. The People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment took control of the Café Pittoresque, renamed it The Red Cockerel, and gave its programme a more-revolutionary flavour.  It closed in 1919, “perhaps due to ongoing political and economic instability”. I have a feeling that the Bolsheviks simply didn’t want something that they couldn’t strictly control to continue to exist. The focus on Futurism and its relation to “social-anarchism” might have had a role to play in the decision to close The Red Cockerel. Communists had always hated anarchists even more than they despised the bourgeoisie.

Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 1930s, was a mecca for white people wanting to slum it, and establishments like the famous Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn didn’t even allow blacks in, other than as entertainers. Duke Ellington’s orchestra was a fixture at the Cotton Club and his appearances there, and on live radio broadcasts from the club, helped establish his reputation. The performances at the Cotton Club were designed to highlight the exotic and erotic nature of black music and dancing, and so titillate the affluent white audience. But as Amy Helen Kirschke’s essay about Harlem makes clear, a lot of the more-adventurous activity could be found in small clubs and at rent parties, those gatherings in private houses and apartments where the entrance fee went towards helping the tenants pay their rent.

There is a useful map showing all or most of the cabarets and clubs in Harlem, but it’s dated 1934. It would have been useful to push the narrative into the early-1940s and include Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House, both of which provided space for young black musicians, who saw themselves as innovators and not entertainers, to experiment and develop a form of jazz, bebop, which influenced many black and white jazzmen. Artists and writers also fell under its spell in the 1940s. The painter Larry Rivers played saxophone with big-bands before turning to art. The Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac, wrote enthusiastically about bop, as did his fellow-novelist, John Clellon Holmes. A poet like Robert Creeley picked up on the rhythms of bebop and the language of its practitioners and their followers. The black poets. Leroi Jones and Ted Joans, grew up with bebop and later wrote extensively about the new jazz.         

I suppose that, in wide terms, the cabarets and clubs that may best-known to non-specialists were those in Paris during the Belle Époque, and in Berlin during the Weimar years. It might be possible to also include the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 where the Dadaists cavorted as the “civilised” nations of Europe competed in seeing how many people they could kill in various ways.

The story of how Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco (both with a background in the cafés and cabarets of Bucharest), Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, and some others, came together in the neutral city of Zurich and opened the now-legendary Cabaret Voltaire is so well-known that it raises the question of whether or not there really is anything new to add to it? However, Raimund Meyer does a first-rate job in summarising the birth, life, and death of the original Cabaret Voltaire, and in describing how it operated and the poets and artists performed. It isn’t easy to recreate live performances from the past, and it’s sometimes best left to the imagination rather than try to. What is clear is that Dada quickly spread to other countries, especially Germany, where it became more politically militant, and France, where it later vied with surrealism for the attention of would-be radical artists and writers.

The cabaret tradition in Berlin has some popular appeal, largely thanks to the novels of Christopher Isherwood, and the film, Cabaret, adapted from his Goodbye to Berlin. I’ve never been able to shrug off the feeling that, in some ways, both book and especially the film give a somewhat misleading picture of what it was like to be in Berlin in the Weimar period, 1918-1933. Certainly, a thoroughly-realistic picture might have to show a more-balanced account of the times, and take in the hunger and unemployment, the violence, the way in which ordinary people lived their lives and what they thought about the general situation. Not every Berliner frequented the cabarets and clubs. They perhaps seem attractive to audiences now, who imagine an openness about sexuality and personal inclinations that was widespread. But on the streets there were battles between left and right forces, and only one could eventually come to power. The Nazis did and quickly clamped down on anyone not fitting to their ideas of clean living and conformity to recognised social norms. No doubt the communists would have done exactly the same if they had seized control of the country.

But what I’ve said doesn’t alter the fact that, for a time, the cabarets and clubs and cafés did exist, and reading about them, and looking at the paintings by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, has its values. Both Dix and Grosz portrayed the syphilitic prostitutes, the maimed and disabled soldiers, the greedy businessmen, and the Nazis who, in the early-1920s, could still be mocked and caricatured. But they would exact their revenge in due course.

Probably even more than Weimar Germany, the Paris cabarets, clubs, and cafés of the Belle Époch, the period between 1871 and the start of the First World War in 1914, might be the most familiar on a popular level. Books, posters, postcards, calendars, and films celebrate its fabled celebrities, like Toulouse-Lautrec, and the places where they congregated. Who hasn’t see the 1953 film, Moulin Rouge, with its flamboyant Can-Can dancers?

The Chat Noir in Montmartre was the most famous of the Parisian cabarets and offered a programme of “poetry performances, improvised monologues, satirical songs and debates on contemporary politics”.  There were other, frequented by painters like Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Manet. It wasn’t that cafés attracting bohemians were anything new in Paris. The poets and painters immortalised in Henry Murger’s  Scènes de la vie de Bohème patronised the Café Momus back in the 1840s.

But it was only later in the century that the cabaret really took off in terms of appealing to a wide audience, albeit that its members tended to be from the middle and upper-classes. There is a story about Rodolphe Salis, founder of the Chat Noir, being approached by the actress Louise France, who at the time was struggling to earn a living. Her hair was dishevelled, she wasn’t wearing a hat (women were usually expected to when out-of-doors), and her clothes were shabby. She asked if she could read something at the evening poetry recital, but Salis responded negatively: “I don’t know you, go sing in the street if that pleases you, but not here”. Luckily, someone interceded on her behalf, and she later regularly led the poetry recitals, and helped out with the “shadow theatre shows”. It could be that Salis was simply behaving in a dismissive way towards yet another unknown wanting to perform. But the tone of his response seems to indicate that he was concerned to maintain a certain standard with regard to dress and appearance, which might suggest how he viewed the performers and their respectable audience.

Does a cabaret and club culture still exist in the way that it did in those locations and times I’ve referred to? There are chapters on the 1960s Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the Rasht 29 private members’ club in Tehran which ran from 1966 to 1969. It’s unlikely that anything similar to the latter now exists in Iran. Like Russia in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s, an authoritarian regime has clamped down on freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas.

This splendid book, well-written, packed with information, and with dozens of illustrations that include paintings, photos, posters, leaflets, poems, and many other items, accompanies an exhibition at the Barbican. As well as the individual sections where the paintings are displayed, there are a number of rooms where recreations of some parts of specific locations have been created. Do they work? I’m not sure, and I found that I got more from looking at what was on the walls, or in the display cases, in the main part of the exhibition. A leap of the imagination may be all that is required to give one an impression of what it was like being present in Paris or Berlin or Zurich. But It isn’t truly possible to recreate the atmosphere of the past, no matter how much we try to physically re-enact it. But this is a minor criticism and the exhibition, taken as a whole, is visually exciting and intellectually stimulating.