Illustrious clubs and night spots in Mexico, Iran, Nigeria and numerous European cities are celebrated – and recreated – in the Barbican’s latest exhibition, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art.
The Barbican’s show Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art can’t fail to please as a theme. A suggestive jaunt through some of the world’s most illustrious after-hours institutions, it offers a reflection on both the social and artistic role of nightlife. From the Parisian Chat Noir to Café de Nadie in Mexico City, the exhibition is a bombastically large survey of the key cabarets, clubs, and bars from the 1880s to the 1960s. It is ambitious in size, as well as scope. Menus, paintings, teapots, and architectural structures are laid out one after another. Some clubs are recreated; others are left to the viewer to imagine. For this reason, perhaps, the rooms have been created as self-contained environments, a series of discrete spaces, each devoted to an examination of a specific time and place.
The exhibition opens in Vienna, around 1907, with the Cabaret Fledermaus. A space to cure the ‘boredom’ of contemporary life with pleasure and culture, it is full of wicked elegance, from the programme of the opening night to the stylized typography of the later posters. Would you order a ‘Kiss me Quick’ or ‘Cabaret Smash’? The bar where such drinks could be ordered is recreated downstairs, a brightly coloured tiled room with tiled inserts showing all manner of bizarreries, women riding on snails, cockerels, pied pipers and garlands. It is a kind of grotesque for the modern, drawing on an eccentric range of sources that are applied with a joyful touch.
Rooms such as these work brilliantly. Likewise with the Folies Bergère club, the famous Parisian nightclub from the end of the nineteenth century: the room is lit up with the dancer Loïe Fuller, shown performing in an early film experiment by the Lumière brothers. Watching Fuller whirling around in dazzling and shifting light effects, the room was tangibly lit up with electric excitement. Framed against the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, who offered his own artistic translation of her ‘Serpentine Dance’ in evocative, almost ghostly blooms of colour, the whole radical point of art-as-life and life-as-art made sense. The slightly stiff rendering of a party in a museum (perhaps it’s like trying to explain a joke) disappeared. A similar sense of atmosphere is evoked for the Nigerian Mbari Clubs of the 1960s. Founded in Ibadan by a group of creatives including actors, musicians and visual artists, the first Mbari club was intended to be a centre for cultural activity, transforming a courtyard into a performance venue, art gallery, library and office, attracting an international audience and, importantly, open to all.
Open to all in Ibadan, but who was the audience for the rest of these clubs and cabarets? The exhibition rightly suggests it will examine the social role that these spaces played, but I feel that, with the exception of the Mbari Clubs, it is only ever hinted at. In terms of audience, we are presumably not exclusively talking about a confined social group, but something more porous, that allowed both the committed member and the casual observer. For example, nightlife culture has long been associated with a form of voyeuristic tourism, in which curious (often middle-class) visitors could indulge in titillating and risqué behaviour, without fear of comprising their position in society. This was certainly the case in Berlin nightlife, which increasingly bowed to normative economic pressure. How far was this the case in these other clubs and cabarets? The Barbican’s focus is decidedly on the initial creative impulse behind these spaces, rather than the way that such spaces were experienced.
This criticism aside, the show is absolutely worth a visit. It is refreshing to visit an exhibition that doesn’t repeat the tired formula that typically focuses on France and Germany, of the decadent cabaret and the degenerate club. Instead, we are invited to consider these spaces as an integral part of creative production over a period of almost a hundred years. It was always going to be hard to translate something so vibrant as a club within the static walls of a museum. If the exhibition doesn’t entirely succeed in bringing these places to life, it does offer a new perspective onto the cultural and artistic significance of nightlife.
Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art will be shown at the Barbican Art Gallery until 19th January 2020. Click here for more information about the show and its related events programme.
This review was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.
- Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art Installation view Barbican Art Gallery. Recreation of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus, originally designed by Josef Hoffmann (1907), 2019. Conceived by the Barbican Art Gallery and Caruso St John, in collaboration with the University of Applied Arts, Vienna. ©Tristan Fewings / Getty Image.
- Josef Hoffmann Wiener Werkstätte Postkarte No. 74 (Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus), 1907, Collection of Leonard A. Lauder.
- Bertold Löffler Poster for the Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907. The Albertina Museum, Vienna © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.