Into the Night at the Barbican

ARTSTOR Chat Noir Interior 2

Shadow Theatre at Le Chat Noir, Paris. 

I always look forward to the Barbican Gallery’s exhibitions. Theme-based with enticing titles, they always capture my imagination. The last show I covered there, entitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde (see here LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE) in January of this year, was riveting. With the theme of power couples in art, the curators had their work cut out for them. It was an enormous show. Letters featured in great numbers, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs and textile prints. I remember been amused by Camille Claudel’s letters to Rodin.

When I turned up to Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art this week, the galleries seemed sparsely furnished in comparison.

I could see the curator’s challenge though. Cabarets and bars are all about atmosphere which is hard to evoke in paintings and photographs.

Walking up the steps, I entered Paris. Le Chat Noir corner to be precise. The cabaret sprung up in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. Entertainment then consisted of poetry, improvised monologues and satyrical songs. The first artists and writers, who came here,  liked to call themselves ‘Hydropathes’, those afraid of water (ie wine and beer drinkers)

As Le Chat Noir grew in popularity and occupied larger premises, up sprung another source of entertainment, the Shadow theatre (see header image)

An arrangement of zinc silhouettes adorn the wall at the Barbican. It’s hard to imagine that they were used for such ambitious stagings of religious tales, epics and complete fantasies. People flocked to see these plays in a grand room hung with drawings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I run my eyes over a strange creatures with wings, a maid and a Napoleonic soldier on a horse. Later at home, I read of a production entitled L’Epopée (The Epic) performed in 1887 by Caran d’Ache at Le Chat Noir. It was a grandiose work replete with heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux.

Back at the gallery, I peer down at the exhibition space below, where much larger recreations of the puppets, twist and turn above peoples’s heads and project large shadows upon the walls.

Still in Paris I turn my attention to dancer  Loïe Fuller, who performed at the Folies Bergère in the 1890’s. Fuller became known for her mesmeric dances, using her costume, poles and lighting to creative effect. Toulouse-Lautrec, clearly captivated by her, produced a series of hand-coloured lithographs.  In the gallery, I was particularly drawn to La Danse du Feu. It’s strange – so used are we to seeing mass-produced posters of Lautrec’s dancers, that we forget that they were of talented performers! Knowing a little about Fuller now, I will look out for her in the poster shops.

At the show, an early film features an imitator of Fuller. This dancer performs a flower dance. The effect produced is rather like peering through a child’s magic kaleidoscope.

Next I was in Vienna 1907 at the Fledermaus cabaret which was renowned for its spectacular, modern, tiled interior. Visitors at the show were treated to a recreation of the multi-coloured tiled bar, which you can admire on the lower level  of the exhibition. Gleaming tiles displayed fantastical motifs but the installation itself seemed oddly bare with no waiters or singers to animate the space. Music, which had been wafting up to the upper levels, had ceased. I think I might have missed a show!

Sticking to Europe, I peeped into the Berlin Weimar Nightlife of the 1920s and 30s. Of interest was Rudolf Schlicher’s Damenkneiper (Women’s Club), a painting depicting women dressed in men’s attire and sporting bobs. In Germany, women had got the right to vote in 1919, and were now, not only taking their liberated selves out, but foregoing masculine company as well.

Mexico of the 1920s was a welcome addition to the exhibition. At the Café de Nadie in Mexico City  radical artists and writers met to  discuss new political and social ideas following the Mexican revolution. Slogans such as ‘Chopin to the Electric Chair’ must have driven Chopin-playing pianists underground! In 1924 the radical group held its first  exhibition which embraced poetry, performance, music, woodcuts and paintings. Masks were also used, showing the movement’s attachment to ancient culture.


Mexican masks by sculptor Germán Cueto 1924

A celebration of indigenous culture also came up in what was to me the most interesting part of the show: the Nigerian Mbari Clubs. They came into being in the early 1960s, after Nigeria’s independence. ‘Mbari’  was an Igbo word for ‘creation’ and the first club was open-air in the university town of Ibadan. Here writers, musicians and actors congregated to read their poetry, exhibit their art and perform music and dance. Another club opened in Osogbo and became home to the Yoruba opera company. 

oznorHBOil portrait Self-portrait of Suffering 1961 by Ibrahim El-Salahi

The clubs were both influenced by Western art but were rooted in their own tradition. I loved the art on display particularly an oil portrait by Ibrahim El-Salahi but also a black and white film of a performance of drumming and dance where the cheekiness of the woman dancer wanting to outdo her male dance partner is delightful to watch. The joy and exuberance of all taking part in the musical event warms the soul.

And this was the strength of this part of the show – that you could see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the club. 

An imperfect show but with fascinating insights into clubs from further afield. 


Talks, music and film accompanying the show:



‘Mrs Pollock’ breaks free of her husband’s shadow in a vibrant burst of colour and energy

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

so good you would not know it was done by a woman – Hans Hofman

For too long the artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984) lived in the overbearing shadow of her alcoholic husband, Jackson Pollock, in both life and death. Yet when they met in 1941, she was already developing a significant career for herself as an artist in her own right who earned praise – and a dancing partner – from Piet Mondrian, amongst others. But that was then – when women were sidelined, overlooked or just ignored (Krasner changed her name from Lena to the andrognous “Lee” in response to this) – and this is now. And this long overdue exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery – the first in Europe in 50 years – reveals Krasner as an important artist in her own right, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism who adopted an entirely abstract approach which endured throughout her life. Her artistic language was distinctive, independent and continually evolving. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her husband included, she refused to develop a ‘signature image’, preferring to “believe in continuity”.

Largely organised chronologically (take the mini guide with a map as the exibition layout is initially rather confusing), the Barbican show actually begins with work created in 1945 and after, when Krasner moved to Springs, Long Island, with her new husband, Jackson Pollock. While Pollock worked in his own studio, Krasner set up her own makeshift studio space in a bedroom. The paintings produced during this period may be small in scale but include a wealth of precise detail, and they pulsate with an energy redolent of her husband’s famous drip paintings. These jewel-like abstractions, and the mosaic tables she created from old wagon wheels, prove that size need not be a constraint on the freedom of artistic imagination.

You can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale

– Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, 1908-1984 Self Portrait, 1930 Oil on linen 30 1/9 x 25 1/8 in. The Jewish Museum

The exhibition then backtracks to Krasner’s early years, when as young woman she started experimenting with self-portraits. By 1928 she had graduated from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union, and was due to commence her studies at the prestigious National Academy of Design. These self-portraits are confident works, her love of colour and bold strokes already evident. Examples of her life drawing, classical in style but assured and uninhibited, are displayed in the next room, opposite her early adventures in abstraction: the influence of the cubists, and particularly Picasso is clear in these works.

The most significant work on the upper floor of this exhibition is Prophecy (1956) a large canvas dominated by fleshy human forms and gashes of red and yellow. Boldly outlined with black, the work was painted at a time when her relationship with the unfaithful, alcoholic Pollock was under considerable strain. She herself was disturbed by the painting, leaving it on her easel while she went to France. On 12 August 1956 she received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had crashed his car, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a friend of his lover Ruth Kligman. Just a few weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to her painting, creating equally troubled, psychological companion pieces to ProphecyBirth, Embrace and Three in Two, which are reunited in this exhibition.

In the downstairs rooms of the Barbican Art Gallery, a series of spacious white rooms allow the viewer to fully appreciate Krasner’s ongoing artistic development. It was as if the loss of her husband allowed her artistic vision and creativity to really take flight, and the works on display here are big-boned, expansive and highly expressive. Colours bounce exuberantly from the canvasses – soft shapes in vibrant crimsons and hot fuchsia pinks which pay homage to one of her artistic heroes, Henri Matisse. Even her monotone canvasses in umber and white, painted at nighttime during periods of insomnia, are vivid and gestural. Her willingness, or need, to create and reinvent, to move forward, is seen clearly in the ‘Palingenesis’ series, paintings with hard-edged abstract forms in which cool blues and greens join Krasner’s favourite reds and pinks. These works have a minimalist grace and a sense of peace, expansive yet restrained.

The same hard-edged forms find new expression in her ‘Eleven Ways’ collages, created from earlier works and cut with scissors to achieve “precise incision” (her earlier collages were made from torn paper and her old canvasses and even some of Pollock’s discarded works). The juxtaposition of shapes bring energy and dynamism to these striking works.

In an age when the habit of identifying artists, writers and composers as “female artist/writer/composer” seems paramount, Krasner’s work confirms that there is no need for such distinctions, that it is all just “art” – and very fine art it is too.



Lee Krasner: Living Colour

Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 1 September 2019


Header image: Desert Moon, 1955. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. © 2018. Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence