:: Article

“Nothing happens before 2 a.m”: The Art of the Nightclub

By Mersiha Bruncevic.

Aaron Douglas, Dance, c. 1930© Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

The exhibition Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art at the Barbican in London offers a tour around the world’s most iconic nightclubs in twelve rooms and four life-size décor reproductions of some of the venues. Covering eight decades of global revelry on all continents, the show’s chronology begins in Paris of the 1880s and passes through, among other places: Weimar-era Berlin, post-revolutionary Mexico City and pre-revolutionary Tehran, the Harlem Renaissance in New York and the Mbari clubs in 1960s Nigeria. It is, without a doubt, a remarkable journey through a historically significant time and wildly differing spaces.

In the words of Pharrell Williams’s dance floor hit, going out to clubs implies “we’re up all night to get some” and “we’re up all night to get lucky”. If this assumption were wholly true, a lot of the art in this retrospective would not exist. The works gathered from around the world aim to shed light on important artistic, social and political ideas at the heart of these clubs and cabarets along with the more obvious playful and sensual energy of the dance floor.

The order of the rooms and the physical layout of the exhibition is clear and clever. Over two floors, each geographical place is given a space of its own and presented in a somewhat chronological order. Each section represents one city, with the exception of Paris which gets two rooms, the Nigerian room that covers two cities (Ibadan and Osogbo) and the most interesting delamination of all—an entire room dedicated only to Harlem, not New York City in general. On the lower floor and through the mezzanine, four different recreations of the décor from some of the clubs are strategically placed so that they can be viewed from the rooms above, allowing the various spaces to mix in an interactive way where sounds, film projections and light shows flow between the different sections. A good deal of thought seems to have gone into the physicality of the space and its architecture, which was developed in collaboration with Caruso St John Architects. This approach is reinforced through the soundscape created by the acclaimed studio hrm199 that plays in the background continuously and was specifically commissioned for the exhibition. Debussy, jazz from the Cotton Club, and Igbo High Life tunes along with other fragments of sound (poetry, conversations, etc.) invoke a sense of shared nightlife heritage.

Nightclub culture as it is known today was born in late nineteenth-century Paris, where a new hybrid space emerged that was part drinking establishment, part art salon. It provided a novel sphere for artistic innovation and even social change. A sign encouraging visitors to “Be Modern” at the Chat Noir, one of the era’s best-known cabarets and a focal point in the exhibition, became the rallying call for its band of revellers. The Chat Noir was at once a hotbed for night-time pleasures and a platform for radical art that was shunned by the establishment. Its art collection was so extensive that the cabaret became known as “the Louvre of Montmartre”.

Unknown photographer (attributed to Falk Studio) Loïe Fuller, c. 1901, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

The pervasive modern imperative was embodied specifically by one person whose presence dominates one of the Paris rooms along with the art she inspired. Loïe Fuller was the original “American in Paris”. In America she had been a vaudeville performer and “skirt dancer”. In Paris, she became a revered performance artist of the bohemian crowd in Pigalle and Montmartre. Fuller’s shows were a provocative and sensual whirling trance of silk and high-tech coloured lights described as a fusion of “artistic intoxication and industrial achievement”. A woman and a foreigner, she was unconcerned with the socio-sexual mores of her time and became the unexpected beacon of bohemian Paris, where radical art thrived. However, among the familiar imagery of cabaret posters (recognisable from innumerable reproductions in Paris gift shops today), several beautiful pieces by Toulouse-Lautrec and a striking photograph of Loïe Fuller from 1901, there isn’t a great deal of surprise aesthetically in the Paris rooms. There’s no way out of that impasse, really. These images are beyond over-exposed culturally, but it would be impossible to curate this exhibition without paying due attention to the Parisian context, the cradle of nightclub culture. The importance of these rooms is to serve as a reminder of the historical relevance of the very images which have lost much of their aesthetic and political potency through their manic reproduction.

The mood of the Paris rooms is seemingly decadent yet hopeful, transgressive yet joyful. Upon entering the Berlin section, the mood changes considerably. In one image, three laughing, half-naked ladies straddle a huge razor as they slide merrily down its sharp edge, while the razor itself hovers over three burning flames. The photograph “Slide over the Razor” (1923), by an anonymous artist, is from the Haller Revue. It is a telling representation of the mood in the Weimar nightclub scene. Elsewhere, an androgynous figure with bloodshot eyes, sallow skin of a sickly colour and a listless snarl, gazes lustfully out over a dance hall where no form seems human and each face is frozen in a mad, spasmic laugh. This piece, “View of a Nightclub” (1930) by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, is meant to depict a fancy nightclub, but it feels more like a nightmare. The disquieting imagery continues in the painting “Tiller Girls” (1927) by Karl Hofer. Two identical young women perform fully naked in front of an invisible audience, their hair bluntly chopped off in identical black bobs, their bodies boyish and the whites and irises of their eyes blurred in a blackish blue. Their nudity lacks any sensuality or lifeblood, the skin is blue, green and brownish, corpselike. Sex seems to equal death in this world.

It is interesting to note that there is very little focus on traditional gender representation in the works presented in the Berlin room. The difference in the visual depiction of men and women is subtle. This tendency is probably indicative of the actual spirit and culture of the clubs that are portrayed in these works. At the same time, it is worrisome to see the pain and horror shown alongside the androgyny. Clearly, the patrons of Berlin’s nightclubs were looking to go beyond certain prefabricated societal conceptions of identity, sexuality and gender but given the backdrop (Germany of the 1920s and 30s), the fear depicted is understandable and foreboding. Scorning the increasing impact of the nightclubs, the Weimar Government hung posters throughout the city declaring “Berlin stop and think, you are dancing with death!”. And indeed, shortly thereafter death did spread mercilessly from Berlin and beyond, but not from the nightclubs. It would have perhaps been relevant to include in the exhibition a room on the Saint Petersburg café The Stray Dog (1911–1915) alongside Weimar-era Berlin. The artists, poets and performance artists at the Stray Dog dealt with similar issues and the lives and works of many of the Saint Petersburg set got caught up in the Stalinist purge. There is a potential correlation here that could have been fruitful to explore.

Unknown photographer ‘Slide on the Razor’, performance as part of the Haller Revue ‘Under and Over’, Berlin, 1923, Courtesy Feral House

Certainly, limits were being pushed in Harlem in important ways: opportunities were created that allowed members of the African American community to become artists, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, innovators, and norm breakers in this realm and it truly shows in the room dedicated to Harlem. Choosing to show the impact of a specific neighbourhood and not New York City in general is a good call, it is important to let Harlem shine.

Pieces like: Aron Douglas’s “Dance” (c.1930), Jacob Lawrence’s “Vaudeville” (1951), the collaborative project by Langston Hughes and Aron Douglas consisting of a series of illustrated poems “Opportunity Art Folio” (1926) for the Harlem journal Opportunity, the displayed novel Home to Harlem (1928) by Claude McKay with its starkly modernist cover design and other pieces show the incomparable richness and innovation of the artistic, musical, literary and poetic skill and talent arising from the nightlife in this one particular area. An artwork that stands out is “A Night-club Map of Harlem” (1933) by E. Simms Campbell. The wonderfully illustrated map is at once aesthetically beautiful, funny, satirical and above all informative. Small written comments next to each nightclub on the map tell you where to find the best music, the best dancers, the really good food, “snake hips” Earl Tucker’s show, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson: the greatest tap dancer on earth, where to “ask for Clarence” (one can only imagine what for) and one legend that tells us that in this world “Nothing happens before 2 a.m.”.

The final stop, chronologically, on the global nightclub tour is the Mbari clubs of 1960s Nigeria. Meaning “creation” in Igbo, the word Mbari became synonymous with the cultural and artistic élan that was allowed expression in the new reality Nigeria experienced following its independence from colonial rule. In Ibadan and in Osogbo, Mbari clubs explored the possibilities of pictorial art, literary creativity, performance art and the oral storytelling traditions of Nigerian mythology in conjunction with Western modernism. These clubs gave birth to a series of works of striking visual power, original poetic resonance, musical trailblazing and innovative dance performances inspired by traditional dance.

It is safe to assume that most visitors to the exhibition, will be seeing these works for the first time. Paintings such as: “Agony” (1963) by Colette Omogbai, “Devil’s dog” (1964) by Twins Seven-Seven, Valente Malangatana Ngwenya’s “Untitled” (1961) or Uche Okeke’s “Christ” (1961) are profoundly affecting. Composition, colour, subject matter and aesthetics are familiar in that they are informed by modernist or expressionist traditions, but it feels simplistic and reductive to try to frame them as such. If anything, there is a sense of magical realism translated into the visual sphere, however labels often detract more than they add to the experience and originality of works such as these. The visual works (paintings, drawings, woodcuts, sculptures, etc.) in conjunction with the literary oeuvres of Duro Ladipo and Amos Tutuola, among others, are a necessary introduction to a far larger cultural context that will probably be explored further and gain historical and cultural significance in time. And the sooner the better. The immense artistic and creative potential of exploring postcolonial existence is evident in this room. These works communicate and reveal the extent to which Indigenous culture has been marked by colonial rule while striving to assert and encourage the preservation of old traditions along with the birth of a new cultural life.

Into the Night presents an unexpected and diverse grouping of artists and eras, in one space. Far from feeling fragmented, the attention paid to the layout and soundscape of the show manages to highlight the shared narrative of the displayed works. The exhibition runs at the Barbican in London until 19th of January 2020.

Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer and literary scholar based in Paris. Tweets @mbproust.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 18th, 2019.