Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire

As a new exhibition opens at the Barbican in London, Cath Pound explores how cabarets and nightclubs have offered freedom for those on the margins.

Cafés, clubs and cabarets have long been a source of inspiration for artists. Operating behind closed doors and liberated from the constraints of societal norms, they have frequently flourished at times of political, social or intellectual crisis – including the chaos and destruction of World War One, the economic and political instability of Weimar Germany and the complex racial politics of the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout, they have offered a safe space in which often marginalised communities can express themselves freely both on and off stage.

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In examining the origins of these venues, the exhibition Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art at the Barbican in London reveals the intense desire to create at times of crisis and, given the current uncertainty of global politics and rising nationalism, prompts us to draw certain parallels to our own times. With the show opening three weeks before Brexit is due to take place, curator Florence Ostende has come to see it as making a statement about the need to keep boundaries open. “Many of the artists in the show were travelling from one scene to another and that idea of a transnational artistic identify is at the core of the show,” she says.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC)

It was certainly at the forefront of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings’s minds when the two writers and performers fled Germany at the height of World War One to found the short-lived, but legendary, Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Acutely aware of the dangers of nationalism and where it could lead, the two intended the cabaret to be – like Switzerland itself – a neutral zone where artists of all nationalities could share ideas.

Dada was a movement that tried to understand an era which had lost all reason

The cabaret’s broad repertoire included absurdist lectures, sound poetry, abstract dance and masked performance. Through improvisation and the deconstruction of language, they aimed for a radical exploration of the collapse of meaning that came to be known as Dada. Dada itself meant ‘nothing’, as the Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara wrote in its 1918 manifesto. A suitably nihilist definition of a movement that tried to understand an era which had lost all reason.

Pacifist poetry

Ball’s poem Totentanz (Dance of Death) was performed by Hennings on the club’s opening night. An open declaration against the atrocities of war, its first line ‘This is how we die’ was a direct, cynical reference to the lyrics ‘this is how we live’, from a popular German military song. Two weeks later the Battle of Verdun, the longest and bloodiest of the war, began. It would last six months longer than the cabaret itself. “Our cabaret is a gesture. Every word that is spoken and sung here says at least one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect,” wrote Ball.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Erna Schmidt-Caroll estate)

Perhaps it seemed like a futile gesture at the time, but in the aftermath of World War One Dada’s ideas spread throughout the world, including to Berlin. The newly democratic Weimar Republic created unprecedented freedoms, allowing a vibrant cabaret scene to emerge in the city that catered to those who sought to forget the horrors and humiliation of the war.

The cabaret stage was used as a satirical weapon to condemn the barbarism of war, nationalism and the hypocrisy of politicians. But Dada-influenced artists Otto Dix and George Grosz turned a scathing eye on those who gleefully embraced the hedonism of the era while ignoring the social and political instability which lurked just below the surface.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Feral House)

Bourgeois hypocrisy was also challenged by the dancers Valeska Gert and Anita Berber, whose erotic yet fragile personas were memorably captured in a portrait by Dix. Their powerful, Expressionist performances – which embraced themes of prostitution, sex, drug addiction and death – “were working against the trend of chorus girls in the popular clubs to create something that would feel visceral”, says Ostende.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Elke Walkford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg)

Gert, famed for distorting her face to convey emotion, appears in a portrait by Jeanne Mammen, an artist who according to Ostende documented Berlin nightlife in a particularly “genuine, authentic way”. She turned an especially sensitive eye on the gay and lesbian clubs which, although illegal, flourished in the newly tolerant era. Her portrayals of the carnivals which often took place in lesbian clubs reveal joyous moments of celebration.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Viola Roehr v. Alvensleben, Munich/akg-images)

Celebration in the face of prejudice was also at the heart of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Great Migration that began during World War One saw many African-Americans arriving in the New York neighbourhood, having fled the Jim Crow laws and poor economic conditions of the South.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019)

They brought with them the rhythms and melodies of blues and jazz, which made Harlem a centre of dancing, drinking and music during the years of Prohibition. It was an area that offered rich inspiration to artists, writers and musicians, who sought to define a new black identity challenging the abiding stereotypes.

Although many of the most famous venues were white patrons only, including The Cotton Club which launched the careers of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, the majority of clubs and cabarets catered for black and mixed-race audiences. Some, like The Dark Tower, were decidedly glamorous. But Cab Calloway, the Cotton Club’s bandleader, credited the smaller cafes, gambling houses and speakeasies – in which itinerant musicians “could hustle up a drink in exchange for a little of our souls” – as the real source of the spread of jazz.

The Modernist painter Aaron Douglas captured the joy of jazz dance, an integral feature of all the venues, in a graphic style which incorporated elements of African art. In doing so he was re-appropriating images that had often been used in an offensively stereotypical manner by white-only venues.

Rent parties, a type of small-scale private cabaret where entry would literally pay the host’s rent, were another vital form of entertainment. Guests were mostly labourers, but artists and writers also attended and used their experiences as inspiration for their painting and literature. “It shows that these kinds of clubs or cabarets could not only happen in the context of public spaces but also in people’s homes,” says Ostende.

Cabarets: The ultimate spaces for hedonism – and satire
View image of (Credit: Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca)

The art created in and about these venues may have had a limited impact on the turbulent times in which they were made, but the very fact of its existence offers tangible proof of a refusal to accept prejudice or intolerance. And that refusal did, ultimately, lead to positive change.

That the values those venues and artists defended are once again being challenged can only cause us to wonder what the contemporary equivalent of those spaces might be. Ostende suggests that, thanks to social media, we’re too often “connected to another type of network” for those physical spaces to provide inspiration in the way they once did – but the rise of community-based art projects such as London’s The Show Room could provide an alternative.

She also points to the resurgence of satirical cabaret and mentions Lucy McCormick as someone who is particularly notable in this field. McCormick, who first gained notoriety on the queer scene before breaking out into the mainstream, has a no-holds-barred style that would not have been out of place on the Weimar stage. We can only hope that she continues to shout loud and clear.

Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art, edited by Florence Ostende with Lotte Johnson, (Prestel) has been published to accompany the exhibition. A panel discussion with BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking will be held on 22 October 2019.

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