Head down to the Barbican tube station and when I exit up to ground level I can see that the rain is really chucking it down. Thankfully, most of the short trek I need to take to get me into the actual arts venue is covered – albeit in the same depressing brutalist styling that characterises the decorative décor of the rest of this grimmest of the capital’s geographical hubs. Rather annoyingly, however, the final fifty yard dash – down the long flight of steps and across a small section of the outer courtyard – is all unsheltered, open to the unforgiving elements and pitted with puddles, and getting through this requires a more gymnastical set of sprinting and swerving exercises than those to which my body has grown accustomed to expect during a normal day of more peaceful perambulation. As a consequence, when I finally do arrive at the cloakroom next to the entrance to the Barbican Art Gallery, my usual suavely sophisticated swagger has been somewhat crumpled into that of temporarily flustered dampness and dishevelment. Which, I suppose, is part of the reason why the androgyne behind the check-in desk gives me such a look of withering condescension – that and the fact that when I do hand over my soggy coat for safekeeping and drying out, I think they’re probably a bit disconcerted by the slightly shabby cut of this admittedly well-worn, puffed out, puffer jacket. Evidently my sartorial contribution to the extinction rebellion struggle – making an unequivocal stand against the trend for following so-called fast fashion by refusing to update my wardrobe until absolutely, threadbaringly necessary – not to mention my use of public transport and walking – no matter the threat of delays, weather inclemency and general inconvenience – well, all this conscientious radicality seems to count for nothing.
On the other hand, I do notice that the poor bored attendant does appear to be wearing dark black nail polish which makes me think that perhaps there could be a broader element of fantasy role playing going on here, presumably inspired by the current Into the Night exhibition that’s now taken over both floors of the Gallery. Well, the show is billed as an exploration into ‘the social and artistic role of cabarets, cafes and clubs in modern art across the world’, and this does makes me wonder whether the haughty judgemental demeanour, aloof attitude and fashion statement adornment of the assistant who’s just given me my cloakroom ticket, may well be indicative of someone adrift in a reverie. After all, instead of being stuck in the dull unfashionable surrounds of this establishment establishment looking after the grubby old clobber of a grumpy old blogger, who wouldn’t wish to be transported back to a more excitingly decadent situation: welcoming the boulevardiers, bums and Bohemians into the darkened denizens of the Kit Kat Klub in Weimar Berlin perhaps, or else seating the swells, swanks and show-offs into the glittering gloriousness of the Cotton Club in New York during the Harlem Renaissance?
Either way, I guess it’s also now time for me to try to enter into the spirit of things, heed the beckoning call of ‘willkommen, bienvenue, welcome’ and ascend the stairs into the start of this rather curious construction of an exhibition. And it has to be said straight away that while the displays here are not without their fair share of divertingly interesting and attractive paintings, prints, posters, photographs, film clips, audio additions and other assorted ephemeral accoutrements, the curatorial staff have evidently struggled to find a very satisfactory way of gathering everything together and then spreading it all out across the dozen-plus show spaces of the Gallery. It’s hard not to get the feeling that what must have initially sounded like a really exciting opportunity to investigate an area of art historical phenomenology that had hitherto been largely overlooked, gradually started to bump up against a whole series of logical and logistical problems and practicalities that ultimately proved irreconcilably insurmountable.
I think the first of these presentational hiccups must have burped into view following one of the early brainstorming meetings when a show about arty clubs had been placed on the agenda and everyone thought it sounded like a really great idea, not just for academic exploration but also one that had the potential to provide a framework for some great illustratory visual backups and even some additional, more spectacular installational revelations. Except that no-one could then think of that many actual iconic art clubs where that many actual iconic artists gathered to entertain or be entertained. Ok, so there was the very famous Cabaret Voltaire, which gave rise to Dada, but that was the most exceptionally exceptional exception. And while I guess there are probably a few continental cafes and, more locally, various pubs and bars where artists have gathered to relax, chat, socialise and network, the history of places like the Cafe Les Deux Magots, the Colony Room Club or Groucho‘s is probably better suited to being recorded in a literary format where the anecdotes of staff and the antics of patrons could be more suitably explained, embellished and mythologised.
In the end, the attempted curatorial solution seems to have been made to vastly expand the defining parameters of the exhibition to embrace a whole range of barely related venues, from the music halls of the French belle epoque with it’s exotic dancers; through the tawdry Berlin dives of the ’30s, where Sally Bowles performed her decadent routines; and on to the much more mainstream entertainments of swing bands and jazz orchestras, crooners, comics and hoofers that flourished in uptown New York in the middle of the last century. And that’s not all, since this is now the age of curatorial globalisation the exhibition remit has been further stretched to include the Cafe de Nadie in Mexico, the Osogbo Mbari Club in Nigeria and Iran’s Rasht 29. None of which I’d previously been aware of but then my knowledge of clubbing and clubs is somewhat limited. I was once an honorary member of Manchester’s Continental Club but the only floorshow there consisted of occasional scuffles and spilt beer, and the only artists were… well, I’m, sure I don’t need to finish that particular over-laboured pun. Then again, just as my Mancunion memories are somewhat blurred and fuzzy, due partly to the passage of time but mainly because of the circumstances under which they were originally formed, I’m not sure that the Barbican‘s presentation are all that more crystally clear in conveying the differing distinguishing characteristics of any of the venues – familiar or otherwise – on which the exhibition focuses.
It’s all very well presenting a flickering film of Loie Fuller recreating the swirling arabesque dance routine that once wowed customers at the French Folies; or showing a small screen video in which a Tristan Tzara lookalike spouts nonsense poetry in an erstaz Voltaire club; or even restaging what looks like a confusing playlet once performed in Nigeria’s off-Broadway equivalent; but I kind of think that there’s something of a gulf between these semi-documentary archival novelties and the in situ originals. I’m sure you really did have to be there to enjoy the full impact of these various spectacles and seeing them second hand, distanced not just by time but also a whole host of other cultural reference points, doesn’t come close to recapturing their excitement or relevance or importance. Not that the Barbican doesn’t try. Two of the spaces – the bar of the Cabaret Fledemaus and the dance floor of the L’Aubette de Strasbourg – are actually reconstructed in full-size replication. But what was clearly meant to be the highpoints of the overall exhibition fall hopelessly flat since both of the spaces are, quite understandably, devoid of clientele. Maybe the idea could have worked if the Barbican had been able to afford the expense of filling theses spaces with dressed-up extras milling about, getting drunk, animated and exchanging bon mots. But, as it is, entering these silent rooms, however pleasingly decorated they may be, feels like walking into a mausoleum or maybe one of those dread parties where it’s instantly apparent that one’s arrived an hour or two too early. It’s just a bit awkward and embarrassing, and the instant reaction is to quickly sidle along out of the place. Which is not, perhaps, the ideal ambience that exhibitions are meant to create.
Ok, so despite having given the show a pretty thorough pasting so far – and I really do think there are huge problems with the concept and its presentation – nevertheless, I have to grudgingly admit that I did actually quite enjoy the experience of wandering around the show. Maybe the relief of getting out of the rainy weather helped and the background music – a mix of Debussy, Satie and a lot of other up tempo stuff I didn’t recognise – definitely provided a pleasantly positive background note. In the end, I suppose that even though the exhibition theme was a bit messy and the overall design, that darted incoherently around the continents and across the decades, was irritating, not to mention the uneven disparity between the contents of the separate displays…there were still sufficient individual items of interest to make the bumpy journey worthwhile. And these varied from the expected – the violent caricatures of Grosz and Beckmann that have come to define the decay of inter-war Germany – to the entirely unfamiliar – the exuberant and suprisingly successful paintings of African Modernists from the 1960s. At which point I had intended to consult the photographs that I took during my visit in order to help compile a list of other visual treats that might tempt the undecided viewer to maybe take a chance and call in at the show. Except that, owing to an annoying technical malfunction which, I think, may have been connected to personal ineptitude and my having pushed a wrong button, I seem to have managed to delete just about all of said snaps. Which is also the reason that the pictures accompanying this week’s blog are a bit limited, unrepresentative and disappointing – for which I apologise. Anyway, from memory I recall there was the preparatory sketch that Eric Gill provided for the figure of the Golden Calf that, when finished, adorned the entrance to the eponymous London club; some paintings of New York night life from the brushes of Edward Burra; a few of Balla‘s Futurist decorations for Rome’s Bal Tic Tac; and other interesting designs by the likes of Lautrec, Kokoschka, Van Doesburg and Spencer Gore, all of which are worth checking out. So, in short, not a real must-see show but if someone offers a free ticket then not one to decline.