by Pallavi MehraSep 25, 2021
An extraordinary tapestry, showing devils dancing among flames, accompanied by a chair and table carved with similar flamboyant motifs, occupy a corner of Into the Night: Clubs and Cabarets in Modern Art, an exhibition currently on display at the Barbican Centre in London. These are relics of the Cabaret del Diabolo, a nightclub that opened in 1922 in Rome, and they were designed, like all the cabaret’s furnishings, by Futurist artist Fortunato Depero. Futurism was an Italian avant-garde movement closely aligned with fascism, and many of its members were drawn from the upper classes. This composition gave their gatherings a dubious sparkle: as a neon sign in a rival Futurist nightclub read, ‘if you don’t drink champagne, go away!’
A collection of artefacts from a very different institution are assembled across the exhibition hall. The Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) was founded in Mexico City around the same time by a group of socialist artists from the Estridentismo movement. While the Cabaret del Diabolo’s entertainments centered on erudite subversions of Italian high culture, such as readings of Danté pastiches by Filippo Marinetti, the activities of the Café de Nadie, and its successor institution the Carpa Amaro, were more populist. These included carnivalesque performances employing traditional-style papier-mâché masks and exhibitions of cheap woodcut prints that were intended for the walls of working people. Many of the latter are on display here, emblazoned with motifs drawn from folk art, scenes of everyday life, and revolutionary heroes. One shows a bottle containing sinister creatures labelled 'conserved conservatives'.
This imagined encapsulation figures as an emblem for the strategy of the nightclub: it is a space of exception, neither as private as the home nor as public as the street. The name ‘club’ suggests a group united by elective affinity and exclusivity. In spatial terms, the latter quality is enforced by the velvet rope, which keeps out elements deemed unsympathetic to the atmosphere within. Ideally, this permits the birth of another world, if only for a few hours, where a new form of social body is brought into being.
In historical terms, nightclubs have varied enormously in terms of the type of community they endeavour to create. These range from the political to the hedonistic, from the artistic to the sexual. These categories are not so easily unpicked, however, since, as Into the Night reveals, clubs frequented by artists were nearly always also sites of political debate and of physical pleasure, in the form of dance, sex and intoxication. The techniques of the club, such as Depero’s woozy flame motifs, are harnessed to intensify such sensations by subjecting geometric space to bizarre distortions.
Paint is not the only tool in the nightclub designer’s kit, as the earliest example included in the show demonstrates. The famous cabaret Le Chat Noir opened in Montmartre, Paris, in 1881, and quickly became popular among the district’s artists, including Degas and Monet, whose work hung on its walls. It was also famous for its light shows, which employed coloured lights to cast silhouettes recounting fabulous tales. As part of the exhibition the curators have recreated spaces from several historic clubs, including a room with demonstrations of Le Chat Noir’s shadow puppetry. There is also an exhibit based on L’Aubette in Strasbourg, which was designed by Hans Arp, Sophie Täuber-Arp, and Theo van Doesburg, and employed a more advanced technological medium: popular films were projected onto screens hung in the ballroom. Another room features a recreation of the bar of Cabaret Fledermaus, a haunt of fin-de-siècle Viennese artists decorated with elaborate tiles and chairs designed by Josef Hoffmann. Le Corbusier, evidently impressed, executed careful sketches of the club’s layout.
Some of the other subjects covered by the show include the nightlife of Weimar Germany, complete with some wonderful set designs by Hanna Höch; the Mbari Artists and Writers Club established in Ibadan, Nigeria in the early 1960s; and Rasht 29, founded in Tehran in 1966. The latter two exhibits, and the Mexican examples cited above, do much to move the conversation beyond the usual roster of nightclubs explored by (for example) a 2018 exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum titled Night Fever and a 2015 book of photographs by Giovanna Silva on the same subject, Nightswimming. The question of club design is evidently in the air, doubtless because many such institutions, no matter how venerable, have lately been forced to close in gentrifying western cities.
The nostalgia piqued by such losses is not hard to understand when one stands in front of a series of prints by Toulouse-Lautrec included in the Barbican show. These images show Loie Fuller, a cabaret artiste whose ‘serpentine dance’, performed with flowing robes under coloured lights, made her enormously famous and much imitated in the 1890s. Toulouse-Lautrec captures her movements in several iterations of the same image, which he has given various multicoloured washes and, in some instances, dusted with glitter. The hallucinatory employment of new entertainment technologies, the exhilaration of dance, and the glamour of fame make for an intoxicating brew. Surely Warhol must have been familiar with these works, which prefigure his own prints based on celebrities who frequented Studio 54 in Manhattan. As this lineage demonstrates, the nightclub has been an enduring source of inspiration and community to artists since the birth of the avant-garde. The question remains as to whether it can continue to be so in gentrified cities that foreclose the possibility of uninhibited fun.
Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art is at the Barbican Centre until January 19, 2020.