‘Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art’ – Barbican Art Gallery

October 15, 2019


4th Oct 2019—19th Jan 2020


Standard: Monday – Friday, £15; Saturday & Sunday, £17

Young Barbican: £5

Under 14s Free


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The impression of an unfolding narrative arises as one enters the rooms of Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art at Barbican Art Gallery. Exploring the development of art movements and modern aesthetics through the lens of avant-garde spaces, the exhibition tells a story of influential artistic milieux, which spreads over eleven cities on four continents. Each room of the gallery is dedicated to a different creative environment, raging from clubs in Ibadan, Mexico, and Tehran, to cabarets and cafes in European capitals. The artworks on display did not merely capture the unique ambiance of the venues. Along with the story of a vibrant cultural landscape, the exhibition mediates core questions of gender, power, and identity, which intertwine with artistic attitudes of each community.


Josef Hoffmann Kabarett Fledermaus Postkarte (Cabaret Fledermaus Postcard), Wiener Werkstätte, Nr. 74., 1907 Lithograph Theatermuseum, Vienna



The exhibition opens with a selection of posters and illustrations related to The Cabaret Fledermaus, which serves as a starting point for exploring the revolutionary status of other performance venues in Rome, Paris, Strasbourg, Zurich, and London. Reevaluating ideas from across the realms of architecture, painting, music, dance, and literature, the Viennese cabaret was meant to integrate vital elements of culture within a space of one building. A recreation of the cabaret’s bar in a 1:1 scale on the lower level of the gallery gives a sense of the ‘all-embracing art form’ the pioneers of Vienna Workshop had in mind when devising their new aesthetics. Drawing upon Josef Hoffmann’s postcards as the only surviving record of the Art Nouveau interior, the exhibition renders a mosaic of 7000 ceramic tiles, radiating with a plentitude of sizes, colors, and motives from every wall.


 Jeanne Mammen, Café Nollendorf (1931), watercolor, brush and ink over pencil on Vellum


The raw, yet uncanny representations of nightlife in the Weimar Republic by Karl Hofer, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler and Jeanne Mammen intermingle with a new approach towards the female subject which, I venture to say, constitutes the most potent aspect of the exhibition. The paintings on display are imbued with women’s melancholy and a sense of suppressed desire, conveyed in line with Otto Dix’s postulate to depict ‘life undiluted’—they speak from the very roughness of 1920s Berlin and captivate with a nerve of unsettling detail, such as the indistinct portrayal of women’s faces in Jeanne Mammen’s Café Nollendorf.


         Ibrahim El-Salahi Self-Portrait of Suffering 1961, Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany


The attempt to define a visual language of the community as a whole appears challenging when arriving at the selection of art pieces associated with Mbari clubs. Created in Ibadan, shortly after Nigeria’s liberation from a colonial rule, such works as Colette Omogbai’s Agony, Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Self-portrait of Suffering, and Jacob Afolabi’s Slavery share a common sense of detachment, echoing through their representations of a deformed human figure. This recurring theme encourages us to first see the works as elements of the universal language of a community. Yet, a closer look at the economy of color and subtle, curved shapes in Self-portrait of Suffering displayed next to Agony with its surrealist employment of abstract forms, exposes the essentially singular character of each artist’s approach. As such, this part of the exhibition urges a viewer to constantly question the collective imagery relating to colonialism against the vicissitudes of independent, personal aesthetics.



Colette Oluwabamise Omogbai, Agony (1963), Oil on hardboard 69 x 50.5 cm, Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth. DEVA, Universität Bayreuth


Into the Night offers a diverse journey across creative communities which galvanize on their quest for 'the authentic expression'. The initial sections suffer, however, from the insufficiency of contextual insight as the exhibition stresses the role of cabarets in challenging aesthetic conventions without explaining the conditions against which the places came across as revolutionary. Given the lack of perspective on the character of societies and art before cabarets’ emergence, some venues appear selected from a cultural scene without the justification of their influential status.



Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor



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