The Underground Clubs and Cabarets That Shaped Modern Art

Elyssa Goodman
Oct 23, 2019 5:28PM

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

Cigarette smoke curls upward from a lilting hand while the strum of an upright bass reverberates through a darkened room. Voices chatter, glasses clink, ideas exchange. Long before there was a hub of connectivity on the internet, cabarets, cafés, and clubs were gathering places where artists and intellectuals brushed shoulders. At the Barbican Art Gallery in London, the show “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art,”on view through January 19, 2020, explores the impact of these beloved venues in an exhibition for the first time. From the 1880s to the 1960s, artistic communities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America thrived because of these spaces. They had lasting effects on modern art.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Réouverture du cabaret du Chat Noir, 1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bertold Löffler, Poster for the Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Courtesy of The Albertina Museum, Vienna


In the second half of the 19th century, a proliferation of theaters, concert halls, cabarets, cafés, and clubs sprung up in cities like London, Paris, and New York, offering new and vibrant worldviews. Industry had moved away from the countryside and into urban centers, and industrialized labor ensured more leisure time for the upper class.

When these cultural spaces soared in popularity, some artists began making work based on them or their biggest stars. Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen designed the now-iconic poster for Montmartre club Le Chat Noir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec actively documented the performances at the legendary Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. With advances in printmaking and distribution, multiple copies of their work could be produced and sold at once. It was the forebear of today’s advertising techniques.

Giacomo Balla, Design for the sign and flashing light for the facade of the Bal Tic Tac, 1921. © DACS, 2019. Photo by Studio Fotografico Gonella 2014. Courtesy of the Fondazione Torino Musei.

The Ciné-bal (cinema-ballroom) at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg, 1926–28. Photo by Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Creating a venue’s atmosphere became a work of art in itself. In Rome, Giacomo Balla painted murals in Bal Tic Tac, while Fortunato Depero outfitted the Cabaret del Diavolo. He took direct inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy, designing the furniture and lighting according to the three sections of the narrative poem: “Paradise,” “Purgatory,” and “Inferno.” In Vienna, the artist cooperative Wiener Werkstätte almost entirely designed the Cabaret Fledermaus, from the furniture to the fabric to the stage. In Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg’s Café L’Aubette became a physical embodiment of minimalist design.

Cabarets and clubs pushed thought and artmaking processes forward, as well. During World War I, Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire became the birthplace of Dada. Artists who sought refuge from the war joined together in collective confusion and frustration, using their practices to attack, question, deconstruct, and parody the systems that brought them to war in the first place. Similarly, Futurism found a home at Bal Tic Tac, Expressionism at Cabaret Fledermaus, De Stijl at Café L’Aubette, and Post-Impressionism at the Folies Bergère in Paris.

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire, 1916. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

But Western Europe was not the only place where cabaret and café culture affected the art world. In Nigeria in the 1960s, the Mbari Artists and Writers Club pushed artists to create thoughtful work driven by critique, rather than low-hanging fruit for tourists. In 1966, Tehran’s Rasht 29 created an art market in the city where there was none, holding auctions and providing space for artists to show their work. It was so successful that Empress Farah Pahlavi even attended an auction, which included works by several now-famous Iranian artists like Hossein Zenderoudi and Faramarz Pilaram.

Modern art responded to the intricacies of new life after the Industrial Revolution. Artists sought not just to commune with one another, but to invigorate their senses; many did this not just as patrons, but as performers and designers, too. At the time, the newness of these spaces made them creatively lawless. While today, we take spaces like these for granted, then, they were worlds not yet forged, offering unique spaces that birthed artistic movements still revered today.

Elyssa Goodman