Reviewed: 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, which 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 remark from a couple behind me, as I walked into another skeletal space that was part of the Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibit, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art. Similar to me, those visitors were disenchanted by this exploration of Modern Art through nightlife, in cities such as Tehran, London, Mexico City, Berlin, and Ibadan, between the 1880s’-1960s’.

I previously went to the Barbican in 2017 to see Basquiat: Boom for Real. Similar to the artists and artworks featured in Into the Night, Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply influenced by nightlife. At that exhibit, the clubs and streets of New York City radiated from the artworks and into the gallery space. But in comparison, the atmosphere of Into the Night was extremely muted.

Museum vitrine with carpet sample and pencil drawn curtain design.

Carpet sample and curtain design for Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907. Designed by Josef Hoffman.

Into the Night, begins in Vienna at Cabaret Fledermaus. The gallery space features posters, plans, designs, and decorative art objects from Fledermaus. The objects were sparsely spread out across the gallery on frozen grey walls and a blue display platform. The wall text said that Cabaret Fledermaus was a place where “‘[the] boredom’ of contemporary life would be replaced by the ‘ease of art and culture.’” I did not feel this when I walked around the gallery. Viewing objects such as the original curtain designs, a carpet sample, and some well-preserved posters felt more like observing specimens in a lab than experiencing “art and culture”. 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 the aura of their conditions. While the Barbican provided “recreations” of some cabarets and clubs in the lower gallery level, as Time Out critic Eddy Frankel noted, they felt static and disjoined from the original “exchange” between these places 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.

When I entered the space that focused on American dancer Loïe Fuller’s contributions to the Folies-Bergere, I was mesmerized and captivated by Fuller’s movements and could feel her fill the room. The wall text said Fuller utilized costume and color as a means for experimenting with dance. As she twirled and swished in costumes painted in violet, red, and green on film color against the black and white film, you could see how modernism was moving forward from its grey past. Fuller’s costume and movements claimed the space of the Folies-Bergere. But more importantly, her work showed how Modern Art developed in clubs and cabarets because those spaces challenged artists to claim and refine their craft in an atmosphere that provided boundless empowerment and inspiration.

Except for a few notable rooms (New York City, Berlin, and the room dedicated to Loïe Fuller), Into the Night is an encyclopedic approach to exhibiting Modern Art’s relationship to clubs and cabarets, and ultimately fails to enhance a visitor’s understanding of this sacred relationship.

Sources:

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