Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art at the Barbican

Exhibition at the Barbican, a brown wall with many framed woodcuts and a vitrine with four carved masks.

Mexico City room at the Barbican, that lacked the “voom”. (author’s own image)

“I was kind of expecting more va va voom”.

“There is va va just no voom”.

I overheard this from a couple behind me, as we walked into another skeletal room for the Barbican Art Gallery’s ‘Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art’ exhibition. Like me they were also disenchanted by this exploration of Modern Art, cabarets, and clubs in New York City, Tehran, London, Paris, Mexico City, Berlin, Vienna, Ibadan, Rome, Strasbourg, and Zurich from the 1880s to the 1960s.

I had previously been to the Barbican back in 2017 to see the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit, ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’. Basquiat, like the artists and works featured in this exhibition, was deeply influenced by his own exposure to night life. At that exhibition Basquiat made the clubs and streets of New York City fill the space beyond its assigned walls and display platforms. The whole atmosphere radiated a boundless world of art and reality, that was present the moment you entered the space. In comparison to the Basquiat exhibition the atmosphere of ‘Into the Night’ was extremely muted. Walking into the Barbican’s art gallery on a Saturday evening, felt like walking into work early on a Monday morning.

Museum vitrine with carpet sample and pencil drawn curtain design.

Carpet sample and curtain design for the Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907. Designed by Josef Hoffman. (author’s own image)

‘Into the Night’, begins with the city of Vienna. The room features posters, plans, designs, and decorative art objects from the Cabaret Fledermaus. The objects were sparsely spread out across the room on frozen grey walls and a blue display platform. On the wall text it says that Cabaret Fledermaus was created to be a space in which, “‘boredom’ of contemporary life would be replaced by the ‘ease of art and culture’” but walking around the space did not feel like “ease” at all. Objects like the original curtain designs, a carpet sample, coupled with some well-preserved posters felt more like observing specimens in a lab, than understanding than the connection between the clubs and cabarets, and Modern Art.

With the exception of a few notable rooms (New York City, Berlin and a room dedicated to American dancer Loïe Fuller), this feeling plagued me throughout the exhibition. By the time I got to Mexico City (which was about a quarter of the way through the upstairs gallery) I heard the couple behind me make the comment that I mentioned earlier. Cabarets and clubs are intrinsically and indubitably lively, but the Barbican failed to capture the conditions that these objects derived from and the objects failed to capture aura of their conditions. While the Barbican provided “recreations” of certain cabarets and clubs on the lower gallery level, as Time Out critic Eddy Frankel noted they felt static and disjoined from the original “exchange” between cabarets and clubs, and Modern Art.

Film stills from Film Lumiere no 765,1- Danse serpentine [II], featuring Loïe Fuller by Austste and Louis Lumière, c. 1897-99. (author’s own images)

Almost halfway through the upper galleries, it occurred to me that what was lacking from this exhibition was presence. When I entered the space that focused on Loïe Fuller’s contributions to the Folies-Bergere, I was mesmerized and captivated by Fuller’s movements. On the wall text it said that Fuller utilized costume and colour as a means for experimenting with dance. As she twirled and swished in her costumes that were painted in violet, red, and green film colour against the black and white film, you could see the how modernism was moving forward from the past. Fuller’s ability to use costume and movements as a means for claiming space, showed why clubs and cabarets mattered for the development of Modern Art. Clubs and cabarets provided boundless empowerment and inspiration for artists to challenge and change the course of art, because they encouraged artists to engage with their bodies and minds through moving and occupying space.

In short with the exception of a few instances, ‘Into the Night’ is more of an encyclopedic approach to Modern Art’s relationships to clubs and cabarets, that fails to enhance and resuscitate the understanding of clubs and cabarets in Modern Art.

 

References:

Frankel, Eddy, “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art review.” Time Out London, 2019.