Archive

20th century

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The twin approach to this blog is to track the development of the street- and cityscape through the history of Western painting and identify as many urban themes in art, literature, photography and film as can be managed within the structure of this undertaking. As is clear from the sequence of previous entries, the cosmopolitan nature of the metropolis provided a wide variety of images for artists. Themes of urban entertainment for example are rooted in French nineteenth century art. Circus, theatre, ballet, cabaret and café-concert became part of a rich patchwork of subjects ranging from Manet’s interest in the audience and spectators to Toulouse- Lautrec’s obsession with outcasts such prostitutes, clowns and bohemians. By the 1920s, Berlin had become the entertainment capital of the world and mass culture played an important role in distracting a society traumatized by war and humiliation. Artists depicted scenes of leisure, entertainment and city life at night. By portraying the city’s seedy underbelly, they broke down the wall between serious art and popular culture. Cityscape and urban entertainment are beautifully fused to be discussed in this wide-ranging overview.

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Broadway equals showbiz. The avenue runs through almost the entire length of Manhattan Island and continues northward through the Bronx. It is the oldest north-south thoroughfare in the city. Broadway was originally the Wickquasgeck Trail which, mapped out by Native Americans, snaked through swamps and rocks. Upon the arrival of the Dutch, the trail soon became the main road through the island from ‘Nieuw Amsterdam’ at its southern tip. The name Broadway is a literal translation of ‘Breede Weg’. Today, a stretch of Broadway is known worldwide as the heart of the theatre industry. The name of the avenue appears in an endless number of poems and songs.

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Born in the Dutch provincial town of Amersfoort in 1872, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan grew up in a strict Protestant household. His father often neglected his family in favour of service to the church. His mother was sickly, and it fell to Mondrian’s elder sister to take charge of her four brothers. His miserable childhood and unstable life at home made the future artist introspective and bitter. Art became for Mondrian a way to escape day-to-day reality and immerse himself in the world of his imagination. Young Mondriaan (between 1905 and 1907 he changed the spelling of his name into Mondrian) painted traditional subjects in an increasingly non-representational style. In 1911, he attended a Georges Braque exhibition. The work of the Cubist painter impressed him greatly, as it paralleled much of what he had been experimenting with on his own. Fascinated by the artistic innovations being introduced in Paris, he decided to pay a visit to the French capital. However, arriving there in the winter of the same year, the artist made no attempt to contact any of the local modernists. Though he followed the development of their art and theory, he had no wish to enter their circles. Instead, Mondrian rented a small studio and went on with his experimentation in private. He was and remained an outsider. Socially, Mondrian tended to distance himself from other people and he enjoyed few lasting relationships. He did make one attempt to settle down. In 1914, he became engaged to Greet Heybroek and the two married soon afterwards. The relationship lasted only three years. Mondrian was not made for marriage.

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The Dutch review De Stijl was founded in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, and the name has come to represent the common aims and utopian vision of a loose affiliation of Dutch and international artists and architects. Mondrian soon became one of the central figures of De Stijl. The idea underlying De Stijl’s utopian program was the creation of a universal aesthetic language based in part on a rejection of the decorative excesses of Art Nouveau in favour of a style that emphasized construction and function, one that would be appropriate for every aspect of modern life. It was posited on the fundamental principle of the geometry of the straight line, the square, and the rectangle, combined with a strong asymmetricality; the predominant use of pure primary colours with black and white; and the relationship between positive and negative elements in an arrangement of non-objective forms and lines. Mondrian adopted a totally abstract motif, employing an irregular checkerboard drawn with black lines, and with the spaces paints mostly white or sometimes in the primary colours of blue, red and yellow. Between 1917 and 1944 he created some 250 abstract paintings. He named his style ‘neo-plasticism’ (from the Dutch ‘nieuwe beelding’ meaning new image). In 1938, as the political situation in Europe began to grow tense, Mondrian abandoned the Continent for London where he stayed with the British artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. In 1940, with France fallen to Nazi Germany, and England suffering daily air raids, the artist took a ship to New York, despite the risk of U-boats.

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Mondrian settled in New York where he spent the last four years of his life. He held a number of exhibitions together with other European abstract artists who had escaped the war and the brutal Nazi regime that viewed modern art as an aberration. The metropolis, its size, scale and exuberance, fascinated him and inspired his ‘New York, New York’ (1941/2). His subsequent creation ‘New York City I’ (1942) can be read as an elegant abstraction of the Manhattan gridiron whereby streets are represented in primary colours (red, blue, yellow) and blocks in white. Another interpretation of this painting is an abstracted ‘snapshot’ of built form in Manhattan, whereby primary colours represent vertical construction elements (post, beams and/or floors) and white represents the space or window framed within these load-bearing elements. In his final painting ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1943) the checkerboard lines, previously black, are now painted blue, gray, red and yellow (inspired by New York’s Yellow cabs).

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The craze for boogie-woogie (the etymology of the term is unclear) in New York had reached fever point in those years. In 1938 and 1939 producer John Hammond promoted the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts at Carnegie Hall. The success of these events inspired many swing bands (Tom Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Will Bradley) to incorporate the boogie-woogie beat into some of their music. The Andrew Sisters sang boogies. The floodgates had opened. Every big band included boogie numbers in their repertoire, as the dancers were learning to jitterbug (derived from the slang term ‘jitters’ or delirium tremens – an American critic of the exploding jazz scene had made the observation that ‘just when they made delirium tremens unconstitutional, jazz came along and gave us dancing tremens’) and do the Harlem inspired Lindy Hop.

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Critics consider ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ to be Mondrian’s masterpiece, and a culmination of his aesthetic. Compared to his earlier work, the canvas is divided into a much larger number of squares. The painting was inspired by the city grid of Manhattan, and the jazz music to which the artist loved to dance. New York painter and printmaker Robert Motherwell grasped the essence of this remarkable painting and its significance in the history of the cityscape: ‘The Modern City! Precise, rectangular, squared, whether seen from above, below, or on the side; bright lights and sterilized life; Broadway, whites and blacks; and boogie-woogie; the underground music of the at once resigned and rebellious’.

Mondrian was a man of complex contrasts. Artistically he was a precise technician and the creator of austere pictures, in life he was a chaotic dreamer and a withdrawn romantic. He was a lucid intellectual who, at the same time, was attracted to the mysticism of Mme Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1909. In Art and Act Peter Gay locates Mondrian’s creative impulse not in some rational aesthetic concept of pictorial form, but in the artist’s flight from sentiment and sensuality, in his dread of desire. For Mondrian – as was the case for Albert Einstein – creativity was partly motivated by a desire to escape from day to day reality in order to find a harmony and balance that he could not find in private life. Withdrawn, anxious, and fastidious to the point of obsession, Piet Mondrian painted cool geometric abstractions for intensely personal reasons. No sentiment, no curves, no touching – that is how he lived and that is what his abstract paintings proclaim. Beauty was wrested from anxiety. That gives such significance to the title and execution of Mondrian’s last painting which contrasts the square severity of Broadway with the nerve and restlessness of jazz as an expression of modern life.

 

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Mondrian’s boogie woogie supplies a rhythmic finale to this festival of street art. This does not mean that Mondrian stands at the end of a tradition or that the possibilities of further developing this genre have been exhausted. It certainly is a fact that during the twentieth century attention was largely focused on abstract and conceptual art. The interest in cityscapes declined as a result of that development. The revival of figurative art at the end of the century however heralded a revaluation of the urban landscape. Gerhard Richter’s townscapes – and those of Milan in particular – have been influential. An important contribution to the genre was made by photo-realist painters. An already classic example is the view of Madrid’s ‘Gran Via’ which Spanish artist Antonio López painted from life during innumerable sessions across a seven years period (1974/81). Since his arrival in 1980, Martin Kostler has produced some fine cityscapes of Washington DC. Richard Estes is based in New York. His 2010 painting ‘Broadway Bus Stop’ has given the genre a new impetus. Over the years, Leon Kossoff has produced a number of splendid London landscapes. Some of the most intriguing post-war cityscapes have been created by Frank Auerbach. As a youngster he was sent to England from his home city, Berlin, shortly before his eighth birthday and the outbreak of war. Both his Jewish parents were killed in the concentration camps and Auerbach made London his new home where from 1947 to 1952 he was an art student. The capital at the time was badly scarred by war wounds. The Blitz had levelled whole areas of the metropolis and left numerous buildings severely damaged. During the post-war years large numbers of workmen were involved in clearing the debris and excavating new foundations. Once again, London was in the process of transforming itself. For Auerbach, this changing urban landscape made the most compelling of contemporary subjects. He remembered London after the war as a ‘marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama’.

(c) Frank Auerbach; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

His uncompromising painting ‘Building Site, Earls Court Road: Winter’ is one of an extraordinary group of paintings of post-war London building sites. This series of fourteen works was created in the decade between 1952 and 1962 and are among the most profound responses made by any artist to the post-war urban landscape. The painful irony is that the Blitz – like the Great Fire had done previously – offered London the opportunity for renewed ‘planning’. It either had damaged poor districts and shabby property in need of redevelopment, or opened up hidden architectural treasures that once again could be made visible. Bomb damage was the spur to reconstruction. London’s post-war revival is not only proof of the urban resilience in overcoming disaster, but also of the creative potential to harness and maintain its distinctive character.

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The Rua das Flores is a narrow steep street in the old town of Lisbon. Two monuments stand close together at the southern end of the Bairro Alto, the statue of Luis de Camões, the celebrated poet, and, a few steps down the Rua do Alecrim, that of Eça de Queiróz, the national novelist, looking serenely over the female figure of Truth. Ever since Bernini created his famous sculpture (Borghese Palace in Rome) truth has been personified as a naked woman. De Queiróz’s fictional output tends to suggest that the naked body may well be the moment of truth, but the naked truth itself is something we prefer to ignore. The unmasking of hypocrisy in bourgeois society was one of his main motivations for putting pen to paper.

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In 1703 England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty. At the start of the War of the Spanish Succession Portugal allied with France because the French had guaranteed naval protection. However, in 1702 the British Navy sailed close to Lisbon on the way to and from Cadiz, proving to the Portuguese authorities that the French could not keep their promise. Talks with the Grand Alliance about switching sides began soon after. The resulting treaty was negotiated by John Methuen, the British Ambassador to Portugal. It established closer trading relations between the two nations, allowing English woolen cloth to be admitted into Portugal free of duty and, in return, Portuguese wines imported into England would be subject to a third less taxation than those brought in from elsewhere. Port was about to hit Britain. The real impact was felt during and after the Napoleonic Wars when French products were virtually unobtainable. Soon British wine merchants migrated to Portugal and established the famous port houses of Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre. The British aristocracy became addicted to port and afflicted by gout, whilst English poets fell in love with Portugal – and with Sintra in particular.

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The name Sintra evokes a series of cultural memories. In 1825, Almeida Garret published his poem ‘Camões’. It signalled the beginning of the Romantic obsession with the village of Sintra in Estremadura, near Lisbon. Sintra had been part of the itinerary of English Grand Tourists. William Beckford, a wealthy aristocrat, art collector, and author of the Gothic (spiced up with Oriental elements) novel Vathek, landed in Lisbon in 1787. Having spent time at Sintra he praised the area as a ‘vast temple of nature’. The following decade he rented the estate that would later be known as the Palace of Montserrate (having been expelled from Britain for sodomy). Robert Southey spent some years in Portugal.

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In his 1808 Letters Written during a Journey in Spain and a Short Residence in Portugal he describes Sintra as ‘the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe’. Lord Byron visited Sintra in 1809. In a letter of 16 July he refers to the village as ‘the most beautiful perhaps in the world’. He subsequently immortalized the place in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ as a paradise on earth (‘Cintra’s glorious Eden’). What makes the place so special and atmospheric? The sudden eruption of Sintra’s steep hills in an otherwise flat landscape has an effect on its climate. The mellow mists that shroud it through much of the summer have attracted rich Lisboans for centuries as an escape from heat in the city. Mistiness lends its ruins their special charm. The medieval Capucin monastery with cork-lined walls (known as the Cork Convent) is hardly ever exposed to sun light. The gardens of Montserrate offer vegetation in rainforest humidity. Even now, many of art shops in town sell engravings by English artist William Burnett who, in the 1830s, captured the splendour of the area.

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Few Portuguese artists on the other hand were attracted to settling in Britain – with one notable exception. Novelist José Maria Eça de Queiróz was a master of realism. Many contemporary authors admired his work. Émile Zola rated his fiction higher than that of Gustave Flaubert. Others compared the novelist to Dickens, Balzac or Tolstoy. Born an illegitimate child in 1845, he was officially recorded as the son of José Maria de Almeida Teixeira de Queiróz, a Brazilian judge and an unknown mother. He studied law at the University of Coimbra, the oldest academic institution in Portugal and one of the earliest universities in Europe. Eça’s first known work was a series of prose poems, published in the Gazeta de Portugal, which eventually appeared in a posthumous collection edited by Batalha Reis entitled Prosas bárbaras.

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In 1869/70, Eça travelled to Egypt where he was present at the opening of the Suez Canal. The experience left a mark on several of his works, most notably the murder mystery O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra (The Mystery of the Sintra Road, 1870), written in collaboration with Ramalho Ortigão. The novel was turned into a film in 2007. When he took up a post in Leiria to work as a municipal administrator, Eça de Queiróz wrote his first realist novel, O Crime do Padre Amore (The Sin of Father Amaro), which is set in the city and first appeared in 1875. In his fiction the author regularly attacked Christianity and was highly critical of the role of the Catholic Church plays in society.

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Eça made his way up in the Portuguese consular service and spent two years in Havana before being posted in England. For five years, between 1874 and 1879, he was stationed at no. 53 Grey Street in Newcastle upon Tyne from where he dispatched his diplomatic reports on British affairs and industrial conditions. In spite of a dislike of country and climate, his long stay proved to be productive from an artistic point of view. His output included a series of ‘Cartas de Londres’ (London Letters) which were printed in the Lisbon daily newspaper Diário de Notícias and afterwards appeared in book form as Cartas de Inglaterra. As early as 1878 he had at least given a name to his masterpiece Os Maias (The Maias), though this novel was largely written during his later residence in Bristol and published a decade later. All in all, Eça stayed in England for some fifteen years, suffering the damp weather and the ‘indecent manner of cooking vegetables’, which nevertheless stimulated a considerable creative output. Whilst in Manchester, Friedrich Engels formulated his social criticism by observing the excesses of capitalism and its disastrous effects on the working population. Accordingly, Eça found a cutting edge to his fictional social realism by reporting on the appalling industrial conditions in the North-East of the country. In 1888, he finally moved to his beloved France becoming Portuguese Consul-General in Paris where he died in 1900.

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Written between 1877 and 1878, the manuscript of A tragédia da Rua das Flores (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers) was discovered amongst the author’s papers after his death. For more than a hundred years it remained in the hands of Eça’s family who judged the contents to be shocking and refused its publication. It was only in 1980, when the author’s estate was handed to the Biblioteca Nacional, that (two) editions of the embryonic novel were published in quick succession. The first English translation was timed to coincide with the centenary of Eça’s death. One night at the theatre, Vitor da Silva, a young law graduate, sees a strikingly beautiful woman: Genoveva de Molineux. She claims to have been born in Madeira and to have lived for many years in Paris. The truth about her past gradually begins to surface, as does the dark secret that lies behind the deep mutual attraction between her and Vitor. The Rua das Flores is not mentioned until the second half of the novel and appears when Genoveva’s sugar daddy Dâmasio sets her up in a third floor apartment on the corner of the street. Whilst the house was fitted out for her the couple – much to the anger of Vitor – spent some time away at Sintra’s famous Lawrence hotel. The tragedy at the street is Genoveva’s suicide (one of numerous cases of female suicide in late nineteenth century fiction) when she learns the awful truth about the real relationship between herself and Vitor and jumps from her balcony.
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The tragic side of the story does not preclude humour and caricature. The author masterly dissects a world in which only surface counts by providing a gripping portrayal of a class consumed by hypocrisy and greed, drawing such characters as the fat pleasure-seeking libertine; the love-sick gin-drinking middle-aged English governess; the maid of many lovers; the aspirant painter who changes his aesthetic theories more often than his pants; the poetically inclined lawyer whose masterpiece is published in a women’s magazine, and the classy concubine short of cash but with aristocratic mannerisms. Within a framework of very precise topography and geographical location (one can literally follow Vitor’s footsteps) Eça’s Lisbon society is a colourful mosaic of vanity, self-delusion, and sexual intrigue. His fiction is characterized by great narrative fluency, a sharp eye for detail, and ruthless satire. Life is dominated by sordid affairs, corruption and a cheap moralism. To this rich mixture, his later writing added a new dimension. The theme that dominates both The Maias (his most acclaimed novel) and The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers is incest. The dynamic of both novels derives from the inevitability of a relationship between lovers who are unaware of their blood ties.

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In Oedipus Rex Sophocles turned a tale from Greek mythology into a play in which the title character unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud introduced the concept into his psycho-analytical framework. De Queiroz’s plot to his novel can be read as reiteration of the catastrophe enshrined by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. While the dramatist presented only the fact of the unnatural crime, De Queiroz describes all its allure and physicality. In The Maias, the protagonists are brother and sister; in The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, they are mother and son. Incest appears regularly in the nineteenth century novel, although rarely in explicit terms. It is a suggestion, an undertone. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis (1848/50) however the theme of incest is blatantly evident. Helen Pendennis, mother of the main character Arthur, seems to lust after her son. A lonely but sexually alluring widow, she is aware that the object of her desire is her own boy. She broods over his affairs, even throwing one young lady into the street because of her flirting with him. She sabotages any opportunity Arthur might have at an affair. In line with other Thackeray’s works, Pendennis offers a satiric picture of human character and aristocratic society. Both tone and subject-matter of his writing would have been appreciated by Eça de Queiróz. It is most likely that he read this novel during his stay as a diplomat in England.

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Near Place Pigalle is a leafy cul-de-sac, closed by a wrought iron secured gate, which is called Avenue Frochot. Developed in the 1830s, the avenue has an enticing artistic history. Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo lived here at one time; Toulouse-Lautrec had a studio at no. 15 which at the entrance shows a fine example of Art Deco stain glass; Théodore Chassériau, residing at no. 26, was neighbour to Gustave Moreau. Later film director Jean Renoir and gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt settled in the avenue. Composer Victor Masse died at number no.1. The property, partly visible from outside the gates, is supposed to be a haunted house, because of an unresolved murder and various unexplained deaths.

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Pablo Picasso with his partner and model Fernande Olivier (real name: Amélie Lang – Picasso painted some sixty portraits of her) had started their stay in Paris at a Bateau Lavoir apartment. The Bateau was a gloomy mass of dirty premises made of beams and planks where between 1904 and 1914 a number of artists and poets would settle. In September 1909 however the couple moved from there into a furnished place on the Boulevard de Clichy with two windows overlooking the gardens of Avenue Frochot. There he painted ‘L’avenue Frochot, vu de l’atelier de Picasso’.

Nearby Rue Frochot is less exclusive, but certainly more lively. For a start, the street has a place in the history of the artist’s portrayal of onstage performers and performances. In 1886, twenty-two-year-old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec entered the Dihau apartment at no. 6 Rue Frochot. He had come there to meet his cousins, and to gaze at a painting that had been given to the Dihau family fifteen years earlier by its creator, Edgar Degas.

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The painting was ‘L’orchestre de l’Opéra’. Its central subject was bassoonist Désiré Hippolyte Dihau. Toulouse-Lautrec was inspired by the canvas. Within the decade, he would try his own hand at three portraits of the musician. Both Degas and Lautrec portrayed Dihau playing his bassoon. Both subsequently turned from music to stage and dance – ballet and cabaret – for subjects in their creative work. At one time, no. 4 Rue Frochot was the location of one of the most famous salons in Paris. A salon was a gathering of people who were invited by an inspiring hostess. Such social meetings were held for the refinement of taste and knowledge through conversation and exchange of ideas. The salon was an Italian invention of the sixteenth century. The word ‘salon’ first appeared in France in 1664 (from the Italian word salone which itself is derived from sala or reception hall). Before the end of the seventeenth century, such gatherings were often held in the bedroom of the lady of the house. Reclining on her luxurious bed, she invited close friends who would gather around her. The salon flourished in Paris throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and served as a meeting ground for political, social, and cultural discussion. And there was plenty to discuss between 1770 through 1830, years in which France experienced a plethora of change and growth, politically, socially, and culturally. The arrival and departure of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Restoration, each left their marks on the Parisian salon. The presence of a beautiful and educated patroness gave additional charm to the concept of the salon. Aristocratic and upper bourgeoisie women known as salonnières organized salons from their homes.

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The first renowned salon in France was the Hôtel de Rambouillet (formerly the Hôtel de Pisani), close to the Louvre, where from 1607 until her death Rome-born Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, entertained her guests. She received her visitors in a salon painted in blue, the ‘chambre bleue’. Almost all major personages of the French aristocracy and literature of the time frequented her salon, including Corneille, Malherbe, Jean de La Fontaine, Madame de Sévigné, Paul Scarron, and many other prominent figures in social and cultural life of the age. The gatherings at the Hôtel de Rambouillet established the salon’s rules of etiquette which resembled the earlier codes of Italian chivalry.

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Molière’s satire Précieuses ridicules was levelled at the numerous coteries which in the course of years had sprung up in imitation of Rambouillet. The idea of the salon and the role of the ‘salonnière’ were from the beginning controversial. Some argued that the salon offered women an education and a way out from the shadows of a pre-determined place in society. It granted her independence. To others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, these ladies represented the corruption, idleness and emptiness of aristocratic life. The controversy lingers on in contemporary historical debate.

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The salon persisted into the nineteenth century, not just in Paris but in most European capitals (Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere), and became woven into the fabric of cultural and political life. The role of salonnière however was increasingly taken over by a different type of lady. By the late nineteenth century courtesans – the ‘grandes horizontales’ – had reached a level of social acceptance in many circles and settings. As a figure, the courtisan appeared widely in a fictional context.

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Honoré de Balzac wrote about the Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes; Alexandre Dumas fils published La dame aux camélias which centres around the courtesan Marguerite Gautier (Verdi chaged her name to Violetta Valéry in his opera version of the novel – ‘La Traviata’ translates as the Wayward One); Émile Zola introduced Nana into fiction; and Marcel Proust gave immortality to Odette Swann. In real life a number of courtesans started hosting a salon. Esther Lachmann, later Mme Villoing, later Mme la Marquise de Païva, later Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck, a lady of Polish Jewish descent born in a Moscow ghetto where her father worked as a weaver, was the most successful of nineteenth century courtesans.

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When sharing a bed with the celebrated pianist Henri Herz in Paris, she invited various guests to attend her salon – these included Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, Théophile Gautier and Émile de Giradin. At a Baden spa she met Portuguese marquis Albino Francesco de Païva-Araujo. She married him on 5 June 1851, acquiring a fortune, a title, and her nickname, ‘La Païva’. She left him the next day. Her final conquest was Prussian Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck (who gave her the famous yellow Donnersmarck diamonds). With his money, she erected the elegant Hôtel de Païva at the Champs-Élysées (designed by Pierre Manguin), a mansion notorious for lush parties that became symbolic for the decadent taste of the Second Empire.

Adolphe Monticelli’s painting ‘Une soireé chez La Païva’ gives an indication of the sumptuous surroundings in which these gatherings took place. Apollonie Sabatier, nicknamed ‘La Présidente’ by Edmond de Goncourt, was a bohémienne and courtesan who during the 1850s hosted a splendid salon at no. 4 Rue Frochot, a spacious apartment consisting of seven rooms built in 1838. There she met and entertained the élite of French art at the time, from Gérard de Nerval to Gustave Flaubert, Maxime Du Camp, Alfred de Musset, Hector Berlioz, Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve Jules de Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Édouard Manet.

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Between 1852 and 1854 Charles Baudelaire addressed a number of poems to Apollonie, celebrating her as his Madonna and Muse (later collected in Les fleurs du mal). Gustave Flaubert and Théophile Gautier dedicated articles to her, fashionable Vincent Vidal painted her portrait, and in 1847 Auguste Clésinger sculpted her figure in marble as ‘Femme piquée par un serpent’ (woman bitten by a snake) which created a scandal at the Salon of that year. Belgian aristocrat and industrialist Alfred Mosselman who had made a fortune in civil engineering paid her bills (this eventually caused his bankruptcy which forced him to auction his famous art collection in the early 1860s). Gustave Courbet portrayed the pair in his famous painting ‘L’atelier du peintre’. After Mosselman’s death, Sabatier became mistress to art collector Sir Richard Wallace. Over the years she had developed a fine and costly feeling for aesthetics.

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The name Frochot holds an honourable place in the annals of Parisian history. In the Middle-Ages, one of the Eastern hills near the capital was named ‘Champ-l’Evêque’ because it belonged to the Bishop of Paris. In 1626 the Jesuits acquired the land and property which they turned into a convalescence home. François d’Aix, Seigneur de La Chaise, also known as the Père Lachaise, spent most of his time in the Jesuits’ house and contributed to its beauty by creating idyllic gardens. The Jesuits left in 1762. The domain was acquired by Count Nicolas Frochot who, at the time, was prefect of Paris (in 1806 his portrait was painted by Andrea Appiani the Elder). He decided to use it as a burial ground.

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The cemetery was designed by leading architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart. Originally simply known as ‘cimétìère de l’Est’, it became soon known as the ‘Père Lachaise’, in loving memory of the confessor of Louis XIV. The cemetery was styled in the shape of an English garden and its broad avenues were decorated with lime and chestnut trees. When it opened for business on 21 May 1804, it was meant for Parisians living in one of the four districts of the Right Bank. However, affluent people did not want to be buried in what was considered a poor district. Many traditional superstitions concerning interment remained unchanged. Christians refused to have their graves dug in a place that had not been blessed by the Church. The opening of a new graveyard posed a particular challenge. No one would volunteer one of their deceased relatives to be the first to be interred, because of the widespread belief that the Devil would claim the soul of that particular corpse for himself.

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The seventeen hectares of the cemetery remained empty until, in 1817, Frochot decided to take the initiative of transferring the ashes of Héloïse and Abélard there, as well as those of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière. The latter had died from pulmonary tuberculosis, possibly contracted when he was imprisoned for debt as a young man. His death had become a legendary tale: on 17 February 1617 he collapsed on stage in a fit of coughing and haemorrhaging while performing in his last play, which ironically was entitled Le malade imaginaire. He insisted on completing his performance. Afterwards he collapsed again before being taken home, where he died a few hours later, without receiving the last rites because two priests refused to visit an actor while a third arrived too late. The superstition that yellow brings bad luck to actors may originate from the colour of the clothing Molière was wearing at the time of his demise (in medieval religious plays yellow was the colour worn by the actor playing the devil). The Church refused to bury actors on consecrated ground, just like heretics, sorcerers or usurers. The stage was considered suspicious. Molière’s widow asked Louis XIV if her spouse could be granted a ‘normal’ funeral at night. The King quietly agreed. Molière was most probably buried in a dark corner of Saint Joseph Cemetery which had been reserved for those who had committed suicide or those who had not been baptized.

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To remove Molière from St Joseph to Père Lachaise therefore presented the authorities with a particular problem: which one was his corpse? It has been suggested that the commissioners in charge simply dug up a random skeleton from the plot and introduced him as Molière. The same was done for De La Fontaine (despite the fact that the poet had been buried in a different cemetery). Molière’s sarcophagus in Père Lachaise bears his name but does not contain his body. The alleged tooth, jawbone, and vertebra of the playwright, which had once been honoured as relics, probably were taken from the ‘false’ Molière as well.

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Nicholas Frochot’s plan worked out well. In the years 1820 to 1830, the cemetery became fashionable amongst the Parisian upper middle class. Everyone wanted to be seen dead in Père Lachaise. Among the famous residents stand the tombs of Honoré de Balzac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Alfred de Musset, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust and, of course, Frochot himself. Apollonie Sabatier is buried in the old cemetery of Neuilly-sur-Seine, but many of the celebreties who frequented her salon on Rue Frochot were later buried at Père Lachaise. If life is indeed a preparation for death, then Sabatier assisted her guests in a fine manner for their departure and final meeting with Frochot/Lachaise.

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Heddon Street is a small side-street and alleyway off Regent Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. Yet, the Handbook Guide to Rock and Pop (1997) lists the street as an historic London music site. The reason is David Bowie. His 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was based on a story of a fictional rock star named Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy is the human manifestation of a ‘space invader’. He is also the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, hooked on drugs, but with a message of peace and love. He is destroyed by his own excesses and by the fans he inspired. A film of the same name, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, was released in 1973. The cover of the album shows Bowie posing as Ziggie in front of no. 23 Heddon Street. Photographer Brian Ward created the photograph for the cover. Originally shot in black and white, Ward tinted the photographs to achieve the storybook style of the album sleeve. More importantly, however, it was in the basement at no. 9 Heddon Street that in 1912 England’s first cabaret club opened its doors.

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The concept of cabaret is a Continental one. The first modern nightclub, the Chat Noir, opened in Montmartre in 1881. The club presented itself as a ‘cabaret artistique’, a new kind of public meeting place for writers, poets and artists. In an obituary of its founder Louis Rodolphe Salis, the New York Times of 23 March 1897 specifically referred to the artistic clientèle of the Chat Noir: ‘Here Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and the frères de Goncourt assembled to write verses and eat their dinners, including wine, for twenty sous. Here Guy de Maupassant came nightly, brooding alone, at a table apart from the others. Paul Verlaine wrote verses here, seated at a marble table, with ink and a bottle of wine before him, and a quill pen in his hand’. The Chat Noir staged the integration of the artist as a social outcast, the ‘poète maudit’, into the gallery of criminals, revolutionaries, and libertines long associated with the shady underworld of pubs and clubs.
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This, the first modern nightclub, was both a place of adversarial culture and a shrewdly planned commercial venture. Almost as soon as the Chat Noir opened in 1881, Salis turned the club into a money making enterprise, in part to advance the careers of writers and artists associated with the club. The Chat Noir exploited the medium of print to disseminate its brand of bohemianism. The club published its own weekly journal in tabloid format, with a print run that grew from 300 to 20,000 copies per week in a matter of seven years. Other publications included the Chat Noir Guide, a brochure listing art works that were for sale at the club; the Album du Chat Noir, a portfolio of drawings to be sold by subscription; song sheets of lyrics recited or sung at the club, and collections of stories concerning the club. Bohemianism was good business.
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A significant aspect of the new nightclub was the design of its interior. Again, the Chat Noir had set a precedent. Its rooms were decorated seemingly at random. In reality, the cabaret’s environment had been carefully planned. It featured furniture and artifacts of the Louis XIII period, but arranged in such grotesque settings as to make them incongruous. Walls were covered with green paper or drapes. Panels were made with glazed doors of Louis XIII design. On all available wall space were hung paintings and prints created by the cabaret’s resident artists (the ‘artist-in-residence’ was also a new concept). Pots, plants, plates, and antiques hung from the ceiling or were stacked in corners and niches. The deliberate attempt was to mix the ancient and the modern, to blend the rococo and the commonplace, to combine the luxurious and the obnoxious, to fuse style and kitsch. Many clubs adapted themselves to specific themes.
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One of the more outrageous attempts was made at the Cabaret du Ciel. Waiters were dressed as angels with wings and wigs. As guests sipped on the ‘ambrosia of the gods’, they were treated to ‘mystical illusions and celestial music’ while beholding burlesque religious rites (striptease in other words). Heaven was situated on the second floor of the house. The 1903 Pleasure Guide to Paris describes this abode in the following terms: ‘It is a vast grotto, in which hang stalactites of a golden colour. Here Saint Peter is represented by a robust mulatto, armed with a long key, with which he opens the door for the elect … Gorgeous transformations now take place in a mysterious manner, so as to favour the illusion that it is no longer this sad earth of ours, but a region ethereal and serene where all the angels are represented by women’.
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At the Café du Néant visitors entered a dark chamber lit only by wax tapers suspended on a chandelier composed of human skulls and arms. Customers were welcomed by waiters dressed as undertakers and seated at tables made of coffins, from where they could ponder images of death, carnage and assassination that adorned the walls. After drinking ‘les microbes de la mort’, clients would be directed to the Hall of Incineration where they could enjoy a spectacle of death and decay. A chosen member from the audience was placed in an upright coffin. Using a projected image, glass and mirrors an illusion was cast to make it appear as if that person was slowly decomposing into a skeleton.
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In 1885, Aristide Bruant opened a club called Le Mirliton. Its famous owner – the man in the red scarf and black cape featuring on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters – composed and performed accusatory songs in Parisian slang about the fate of the poor and downtrodden, and about crime and violence in the city. His mix of song, satire and entertainment was popular with the affluent classes slumming in the Montmartre district. The ‘chanson réaliste’ made an instant impact and became part of the repertoire of most cabaret performers in the European capitals. This repertoire consisted of poems of loss and hopelessness. It listed songs that dealt with the struggle for life in poorest parts of the city, and with the thugs, pimps, and tarts that called them home. Its themes were poverty, abandonment, deprivation, combined with socio-political commentary. Novelists had been a major influence on the development of the genre which had been preceded by such literary movements as Realism and Naturalism. Later, the art form was performed mainly by female vocalists. It was brought to perfection by Édith Piaf.

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Once the madness of the Great War was behind them, Parisians rebounded in a carnival of cosmopolitan hedonism known as ‘les années folles’. There was a new aspect to this particular orgy of pleasure: the influx of American youngsters who were sick of prohibition and puritanical small-mindedness back home. Some of them had plenty of dollars in their pockets taking advantage of the strong exchange rate, while others arrived with the sole ambition of making it as an artist. Many nightclubs cultivated a deliberately coarse and promiscuous atmosphere. In Berlin, these were known as ‘Tingeltangel’ clubs.

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The sleazy atmosphere of such establishments is captured in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel (based upon a novel by Heinrich Mann) with lusty Marlene Dietrich as the chanteuse Lola Lola.
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The story line was inspired by clubs such as Zum hungrigen Pegasus (opened in Berlin in October 1901 by artist Max Karl Tilke), where one could enjoy performances by a poet named Dolorosa (real name: Maria Eichhorn) reciting erotic and sadomasochistic verses, or artists performing ‘niggersongs’.
The identification of jazz with the ‘spirit of the times’ formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. When in May 1938 Hans Severus Ziegler organized the ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf, he included work by Schönberg, Kurt Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Mahler, Krenek, and many others. He specifically turned against the Berlin craze for jazz. Ernst Krenek had incorporated jazz influences into his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926). Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill were interested in the means of expression found in jazz, but in the Nazi interpretation of German high culture there was no place for ‘Niggermusik’.

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With an audience consisting of artists, scholars, writers, financiers, well-connected ladies, prostitutes, and criminals, the nightclub was a place where middle-class citizens could pretend to be bohemians and, for one night at least, release themselves of all shackles of respectability. These weekend bohemians introduced the recreational practice of ‘slumming’. Middle-class city dwellers visiting naughty clubs in marginal neighbourhoods became an ingredient in the allure of modern European urban nightlife. The OED dates the first use of the word ‘slumming’ to 1884. Social commentators and reformers visited London slum neighbourhoods in order to observe social life in those parts. Once Oscar Wilde incorporated the theme of ‘slumming it’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray the idea became fashionable and held a fascination for authors and artists alike. Nocturnal club life added spice to the concept.

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Outside France, the authorities looked at such developments with a degree of concern. The presence of cabaret performer Hans Hyan, the owner of Zur Silbernen Punschterrine (The Silver Punchbowl) which had opened in Berlin in November 1901, was closely watched by the police. After all, Hyan had a criminal record. In 1891 he had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for aggravated burglary; ten years later he was (unsuccessfully) investigated for robbery. He was fined for libel and suspected of writing and publishing pornography. For a while, Hyan was the talk of the town. He was celebrated as Berlin’s counterpart to Aristide Bruant.

Like his French model, he used local slang, sang songs about criminals and outcasts, and verbally insulted the curious audience that came to see his cabaret. To be treated rudely and abused aggressively was all part of the fun of slumming. Hans Hyan was a master of this game. He had the skill to imitate the speech of various social groups in the city, in particular the slang of the criminal fraternity. His command of the Berlin dialect was masterful. No one less than Kurt Tucholsky remembered Hyan for his capacity of capturing phonetically the ‘Berlin manner of thought, the Berlin soul’. Hans was Berlin, Berlin was Hyan. The relationship with the authorities worsened when Dolorosa started to perform regularly at the Punschterrine. Her list of explicitly erotic and masochistic songs, of which ‘The Song of Songs of Pain and Torture’ was a particular favourite of the club’s clients, became morally intolerable to many respectable observers. Cabaret had become a celebration of immorality. The club was finally shut down in 1904.


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Frida Strindberg was very much a product of the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Born in Austria as the daughter of the editor of the Wiener Zeitung, Frida Uhl worked as a writer and translator in Vienna. In 1893, at the tender age of twenty years, she met forty-three year old Swedish writer and dramatist August Strindberg, who had achieved fame as the author of more than twenty plays, several novels, autobiographical works and collections of stories, poems and essays. He was a controversial figure whose sexually frank works had incurred the intervention of Swedish and German censors. Fame was not accompanied by money. At the time Strindberg proposed to Frida, the writer was heavily in debt and being pursued by his first wife for child support payments. Friedrich Uhl opposed the marriage, doubting the author’s ability to support his daughter.

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Frida and August married soon after their first meeting in spite of her father’s disapproval. Strindberg’s reputation allowed her access to the bohemian circles he frequented, and make lasting contacts with some outstanding artists of her day. In marrying Strindberg, a morose misogynist if ever there was one, she sacrificed not only the relationship with her family but also her career as a writer and critic. Taking his financial affairs in hand, she at once tried to organize a production of his work in England. However, Strindberg did not approve of the active role Frida was taking in his business affairs, and the marriage in which one daughter was born ended in divorce in 1895. It has been suggested that their stormy relationship inspired Strindberg’s tirades against women in general and against married women in particular. Frank Wedekind, the German playwright who in his work laid bare the shams of sexual morality in his time, was the father of Frida’s second child. She sent both her children away to be cared for by her parents.

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Fin de siècle Vienna was a major centre for arts and culture. It was the most exciting period in the capital’s cultural history. The literary and artistic movement known as ‘Jung Wien’ (Young Vienna) was composed of such remarkable artists as Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and others. Frida was closely involved with several writers of the Young Vienna movement, such as the poet Peter Altenberg for whom she organized a subscription, and the journalist and outstanding satirist Karl Kraus whom she convinced to sponsor a reading of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Her affair with the writer Werner von Oesteren was particularly problematic. She threatened him on two separate occasions with a revolver. Details of this relationship were made public in 1905 when she sued Werner for harassing a detective she had hired to follow him. In 1908, on New Year’s Day, she fired a gun in a Viennese hotel. This may have been an attempt to take her life.
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The event caused such publicity in her native town that she decided to move to London where, in 1912, she opened the Cave of the Golden Calf (named after one of the rooms in the Parisian Chat Noir) at no. 9 Heddon Street, off Regent Street, England’s first ‘Cabaret Club’ housed in a large basement below a warehouse. She intended her club to be a meeting place for writers and artists, an avant-garde rival to the nearby Café Royal where Oscar Wilde once was one of the regulars. The club offered a cheap meal and reduced admission to young artists. The Cave served as a kind of avant-garde soup kitchen. For better-off clients, of course, there was lobster salad on the menu.
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The Continental inspiration for the club, apart from the Chat Noir, was the Kaberett Fledermaus in her native Vienna. In her ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to the opening of the club, issued in April 1912, Frida proudly announced that the interior of the establishment would be ‘entirely and exclusively’ decorated by ‘leading young British artists’. The ‘Prospectus’ was illustrated with woodcuts by Wyndham Lewis. It claimed that the cabaret would do away with the necessity of crossing the Channel in order ‘to laugh freely and sit up after nursery hours’. As this comment suggests, the Cave of the Golden Calf looked to the Chat Noir for inspiration. Moreover, the Cave opened only three months after Marinetti’s notorious first visit to London, which gave an added Futurist impetus to Frida’s plans for her club. Among its ‘resident’ artists were Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Wyndham Lewis. Frida insisted that the club presented itself properly in print, from its ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to programs, announcements and menus.

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Typography was essential. All printed materials were designed by Wyndham Lewis according to the latest Continental styles. Sculptor Jacob Epstein transformed the cellar’s structural columns into plaster female figures described by Ford Madox Ford in his 1923 novel The Marsden Case as ‘white caryatids with heads of hawks, cats, and camels picked out in red’. Opening night saw performances by Norwegian cabaret singer and founder of the Oslo Chat Noir Bokken Lasson, shadow plays by Wyndham Lewis, an actor reciting Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and, in true cabaret fashion, a young cockney shouting foul mouthed abuse at the audience.

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Ezra Pound admired Frida’s achievement. Other luminaries who frequented the establishment included Katherine Mansfield, Ford Madox Ford, and – of course – Augustus John. The Cave attracted London’s bohemian set, the mad, bad and decadent. It contributed to the erosion of class identities in the capital. Here guests could enjoy the full cabaret repertoire, plays and poetry, jazz and ragtime music, song and dance, with champagne served until dawn. The Cave went bankrupt in 1914, but not before Strindberg herself had become disappointed by its failure as an artistic experiment. It proved nevertheless to be an influential venture and became the model for a number of nightclubs of the 1920s. The Cave of the Golden Calf had certainly made a contribution to modernism in Britain. The club had served as the after-hours headquarters for what would become the vanguard movement of Vorticism. London’s first avant-garde movement was born in Frida Strindberg’s nightclub. After closure of her club, Frida left for the United States, where she secured a job with Fox Film.

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Nollendorfplatz is a square in the Schöneberg district, one of Berlin’s oldest gay neighbourhoods, colloquially called ‘Nolli’. It is dominated by the ornate Metropol Theatre which started life in 1906 as the Neue Schauspielhaus. The adjacent area in the south around Motzstrasse is the city’s most prominent pink village. Already the camp capital of Europe by the late 1920s, Berlin had at least 160 gay bars and clubs. Uncertainty of the future, at an era suspended between the hedonism of the waning Weimar era and the ominous shadow of Nazism, created a ‘so what’ atmosphere. Berlin was an extraordinary place in an extraordinary time.

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In Schöneberg, theatres, cabarets, and clubs catered to homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, and sadomasochists of Berlin’s liberated sub-culture. The Nazis attempted to eliminate all traces of that sub-culture, but today the district is once again a centre of gay life. A small memorial plaque near the south entrance of Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station commemorates homosexual victims of the Nazi era.

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Photographs from the early twentieth century show Nollendorfplatz as a bustling urban square filled with people on parade. It was this kind of libertine atmosphere that enticed gay novelist Christopher Isherwood. On 29 November 1929 he had packed two suitcases and a rucksack and set off for Berlin on a one-way ticket, rejecting his upper-middle-class background and the social values to which his mother, widowed in the First World War, was desperately clinging.

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Isherwood had dramatized the family quarrel in his first novel, All the Conspirators, published in 1928. In Berlin he would work on a second novel, The Memorial, which further explored the gulf between the generations caused by the war. It was, however, the novels he wrote about Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), that made his reputation as one of the leading writers of his generation, providing an indelible tragic-comic portrait of a city teetering on the brink of catastrophe as Fascism gained in popular support.
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To Isherwood, ‘Berlin meant boys’. Boys he could find aplenty in bars such as the Eldorado, on the corner of Motzstrasse and Kalckreuthstrasse, haunt of a demi-monde that included Marlene Dietrich and chanteuse Claire Waldorff. The Kleist Casino, between Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, just a stone’s throw away from Isherwood’s lodgings, was perhaps the oldest gay bar in Europe, and remained in operation until a decade ago. Isherwood was attracted to Berlin by the ready availability of homosexual partners, but he also communicated a strong sense that he was experiencing historical changes around him. In Berlin he observed ‘a brew’ of history in the making. This brew seethed with unemployment, hunger, prostitution, stock market panic, hatred of the Versailles Treaty and other potentially explosive ingredients. With his portrayal of Berlin between the late 1920s and early 1930s Isherwood has left us images that are still associated with this period. The Berlin novels look at history at street level, showing how ordinary people were affected. His eye for physical detail and human oddity means that his characters are never merely representative of their class or condition. Many of them live on in the memory.

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In the feckless cabaret singer Sally Bowles (on whose story the stage musical Cabaret was later based) Isherwood created one of literature’s lasting figures. Her character was based on Jean Ross, the young British actress whom Isherwood met in 1930, when he moved into a boarding house at no. 17 Nollendorfstrasse, owned by Fräulein Thurau. The apricot-coloured house still stands.

07Depictions of the city in the paintings of German Expressionists employ abstract formal elements such as distortions of perspective and unnatural colour in order to convey the artist’s emotional reaction to the city. The treatments of urban subjects project a sense of the speed, energy and vitality of the city, but also express fear of the effect of urbanization upon individual city dwellers.

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Depictions of the city in the paintings of German Expressionists employ abstract formal elements such as distortions of perspective and unnatural colour in order to convey the artist’s emotional reaction to the city. The treatments of urban subjects project a sense of the speed, energy and vitality of the city, but also express fear of the effect of urbanization upon individual city dwellers.

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1912 oil painting ‘Nollendorfplatz’ shows a busy junction with converging trams. Its composition is filled with stark tensions. The painting features a crowd of people, but the lack of individuation of these small figures (many of them are nothing more than a single brush stroke) brings out the anonymity of urban living. Kirchner’s city-dweller has lost his identity. The urban area the figures inhabit causes a feeling of unease by its colouring and distorted perspective. The image suggests speed, motion, and congestion – but trams and people seem to be running in circles lacking any purpose or direction.

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Plaza Dorrego is a square in the heart of San Telmo, the oldest barrio (district) of the city. It is named after statesman and soldier Manuel Dorrego who, in the 1820s, twice acted as Governor of Buenos Aires. In the nineteenth century, it was the main residential area of the city and Plaza Dorrego was its focal point. Located at the intersection of Humberto Primero and Defensa streets, its surroundings are full of bars where musicians and dancers perform tango exhibitions. Both the 1997 drama film The Tango Lesson by British director Sally Potter, and the 2002 crime film Assassination Tango produced and directed by Robert Duvall (who also stars in the movie), were shot in the locality.

The sensual plasticity of the tango has inspired numerous contemporary painters. Brazilian-born Juarez Machado settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1966. In a number of paintings he has been able to grasp the grace and embrace of the dance. One of the strongest painted images is Mariano Otero’s ‘Tango de Passion’.


Born in Madrid but living in France, the tango is a recurring theme in his works. Apparently, he is unable to dance the tango himself, but he has captured its essence with an understanding touch. The intimacy of the dance is reflected in an idiomatic expression. It takes two to tango (at times used with negative connotations) suggests that certain activities cannot be performed alone, making love, fighting a duel, playing ping pong, or dance the tango. The 1952 song ‘Takes Two to Tango’ was written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning. It has the following catching refrain:

Takes two to tango, two to tango
Two to really get the feeling of romance.
Lets do the tango, do the tango
Do the dance of love.


Two different versions, one by Pearl Bailey and the other by Louis Armstrong, made it a hit in that same year. In Australia, during the 1930s, the phrase was used to indicate premarital sex. Tango and eroticism are inextricably linked.

Tango is the manifestation of an immigrant culture. It is impossible to reconstruct its history, because there are no written sources. Its roots are multiple. Both tango music and dance have indirect African, Cuban, and Andalusian influences, added to regional music and popular lyrics. The word itself is of African origin, meaning drums or dance. The Argentine Tango developed between 1860 and 1890 in Buenos Aires. It emerged out of the immigrant culture of Argentina’s dockside slums, on the shores of the Riachuelo River, and in clubs and brothels of southern Buenos Aires. The social class in which it developed was a mixture of regional people and European immigrants made up by sailors, craftsmen and workers. They frequented the establishments to escape the daily pressures of life and loneliness and identified with lyrics that expressed the hardship of life. It was danced by pairs of men, sometimes by prostitutes and their companions. The steps are sexual and aggressive, the music permeated with longing and despair, as the dancers act out the ritualistic relationship of prostitute and pimp. Buenos Aires society considered tango to be a ‘reptile from the brothels’, an indecent entertainment associated with violence and illicit sex. Clubs where the tango was danced were raided and closed by police. But its progress was unstoppable. The first tango bands were trios, which included a flute, violin and guitar players.

Towards the end of 1890 the bandoneon (a German import) was added to the line-up, sometimes replacing the flute. However, it appears to be that bands changed constantly and they were formed by whoever showed up on the day of the performance. The first tangos lacked lyrics and the musicians improvized them on the spot. The words were more often than not vulgar or obscene. The tango was a song of the streets. Some time later it spread to the city and arrived at places like the Café Tarana, known as Café Hansen, and other more upmarket resorts. It was only then that women started to take part in the dance. In 1904, the legendary Casimiro Ain (son of a Basque immigrant) appeared at the Opera Theatre in Buenos Aires as a dancer of tango joined by his wife. The dance had gained some respectability at last – but it would take some time for the tango to lose its familiar associations with brawls and brothels.

French-born immigrant Carlos (Charles) Gardel is a prominent figure in the history of the tango. He was born in December 1890 out of wedlock. Berthe Gardès left Toulouse not long after in order to escape the social stigma of being an unmarried mother. She and baby arrived in Buenos Aires on 11 March 1893. Carlos grew up and spent most of his life in the Abasto area of the city where, outside the Abasto Market, a statue honours his career and legacy (the local underground station carries his name as well). During his lifetime he was known as ‘El Morocho del Abasto’ (the dark-haired guy from Abasto). Together with lyricist and long-time collaborator Alfredo Le Pera, Gardel wrote many classic tangos. His baritone voice and dramatic phrasing of lyrics made an enormous impact on his audience (on women in particular). With more than 800 records to his name he was the soul of tango and a cultural hero who made the dance Argentina’s national treasure. Gardel died in an airplane crash at the height of his career (and so did Le Pera). Millions of his fans went into mourning. The popularity of the tango hit Europe just before World War One. Its introduction into France, England and elsewhere sparked a controversy that had been at the heart of European musical appreciation throughout the ages.

Boethius’s De institutione musica was one of the first musical works to be printed in Venice in 1491/2. It was written toward the beginning of the sixth century and shaped music in Europe for several centuries. Boethius came to be viewed as a primary authority on Greek musical thought. In the first chapter of De musica, the author stresses that music can both establish and destroy morality. The ears are a direct path to the soul for the formation of a moral awareness. When rhythms and modes have penetrated the soul, they affect the psyche with their own character. For that reason, socio-cultural observers have treated music and dance with suspicion. An effective means for disrupting civilized society is through a music that inordinately stimulates the passions. The Christian Church has been a persistent critic of song and dance. Early penance books more often than not contain admonishments against such forms of entertainment. Associating dance with promiscuity, Protestant reformers viewed it with a mixture of fear and resentment. Shoes were made for walking, not dancing. Dance cannot be enjoyed without ‘evil communications’. Hence, music was the work of the devil, and its demoniac power had caught many – especially women – by means of a disturbing sensual power. The nineteenth century novel presents the reader with a procession of women who are seduced into adultery under the influence of music (Wagner’s music in particular). Many cultural critics paid tribute to Plato who had banished music from his commonwealth.

The history of dance is a confrontational one. With its introduction in Europe jazz was regularly identified with the ‘spirit of the times’. Jazz as an expression of the age formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. Precisely the same had happened in earlier days with the introduction of other styles of music and dance such as the waltz, polka, and tango. Music reflected the acceleration of life, the intensity of urban existence, the sexualization of society. Composers established the link between creative activity and the demands of modernity. In 1869, C. Apitius created a waltz (opus 37) which he called ‘Der Zeitgeist’. The catalogue of copyright entries for the year 1909 of the Library of Congress makes mention of the ‘Zeitgeist Walzer’ for piano solo by G. Marschal-Loepke. The growing passion for music and dance since the nineteenth century was symptomatic of a more general craving for excitement. Critics pointed to the danger of a culture that elevates the hearing of sound over the listening to sense. Linguists argued that the word ‘ball’ is a corruption of brawl: during the Renaissance the French court dance, the ‘branle’, was known in England as the brawl or brawle. Time and again, dance ignited social controversy. Puritans had related dance to the devil, later social observers were shocked by the wickedness of the waltz, the wildness of the polka, or the lustfulness of the Charleston. Dancing, it was feared, would break all sexual taboos. When in the summer of 1816, for the first time, the waltz was included at a ball given by the Price Regent, an editorial in The Times protested that this intoxicating import from the Continent was an ‘obscene display … confined to prostitutes and adulteresses’.

Traditionally there have been various links between music and literature. It is unusual (although not exceptional) that we can identify literary influences that have shaped the history of dance. The first recorded use of the word ‘walzen’ goes back to the second act of a comedy written by the Viennese author Johann Joseph Felix von Kurz entitled Bernardon auf der Gelseninsel (1750). However, the European passion for the waltz was ignited by the immense success of Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). The novel was held responsible for popularizing the waltz and for bringing the fashion to France during the years preceding the Revolution. The hero and narrator of the novel dances a waltz and falls in love with Lotte, a young lady engaged to another man. The ecstasy of the dance and the pain of passionate but unfulfilled love is the cause of Werther’s sufferings. The theme of the novel gave rise to a wide debate on ‘Werther-walzer’ in which sensuality, moral corruption and mental health were the main issues of contention.

In 1913, a new fashion swept over Europe. It had all started in Buenos Aires, took America by storm, before arriving in Paris. Tangomania grabbed the Continent: 1913 was the Year of the Tango. One of the musicians responsible for the rage for this dance in Paris was Casimiro Ain. That year he had left Buenos Aires with three other musicians on board the steamship ‘Sierra Ventana’ and sailed to France. They travelled from Boulogne sur Mer to Paris and went straight to Monmartre. They entered the first cabaret club they came across and were invited to perform. They were lucky. The club was ‘La Princesse’ which would later become the famous ‘El Garròn’, run by Argentinian musician Manuel Pizarro and his brothers. The young went mad with enthusiasm; the critics red with outrage. The issue of the Mercure de France of 16 February 1914 called the tango ‘la danse des filles publiques’.

The Argentinian ambassador in Paris, Enrique Rodriguez Laretta, was furious: ‘In Buenos Aires tango is found only in whorehouse and filthy taverns. It is never danced in the respectables lounges, nor between civilized men and women for tango is crude to the ear of any Argentinian worthy of his nation’. King Ludwig of Bavaria forbade his officers to dance the tango, while the Duchess of Norfolk pronounced it to be contrary to English character and manners. The Vatican issued a circular warning the faithful that the tango was ‘offensive to the purity of every right-minded person’. Pope Pius X barred what he called ‘this barbarian dance’. He had his moral instincts in a twist. Shortly after the ban, war broke out. Europe was about to witness levels of barbarity it had never seen before.

The Spiegelgasse, a narrow street in the Old Town of Zurich, has been home to a number of fascinating figures – most of them immigrants. Switzerland is the last country one would associate with revolutionary thinking, but this street proves differently.

‘Die Revolution muss aufhören, und die Republik muss anfangen’ (The revolution must cease and the republic must begin), is a famous sentence taken from Georg Büchner’s 1835 political play Dantons Tod (act i, sc. i). Büchner, a young German doctor and dramatist with revolutionary sentiments who had made a spectacular appearance on the literary scene, is often viewed as a sort of proto-Marxist. His writings are filled with premonitions of class struggle. Late 1836, the author was appointed as a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Zurich. He settled at no. 12 Spiegelgasse where he spent his final months writing and teaching until, in 1837, he died of typhus aged just twenty-four. In 1916/17 the house next door (no. 14, second floor) was home to Vladimir Iljitsch Uljanow, better known as Lenin. The authorities were not particularly concerned about the Russian refugee and allowed him to read, write, and speak (in good German) unhindered. They did not consider him a threat.

In London, printers Francis Meynell and Stanley Morison established the Guild of the Pope’s Peace in 1916. Pius X had died in 1914 and was succeeded by Benedict XV. The latter was apalled by the war and condemned the continuation of the slaughter. The Guild was set up to print and distribute Benedict’s political appeals and his attempts to end the bloodshed. The world, including the Catholic world, did not listen. People preferred to lend their ear to the jingoïsm of Lloyd George Kitchener or the Kaiser. The situation was symptomatic for the rest of Europe. Sensitive minds tried to escape from the collective madness. Zurich was a gathering place for European refugees, a place where people came to find peace and stability. It was also a relatively permissive environment that enjoyed a history of allowing the expression of revolutionary ideas by Europe’s disillusioned intellectuals. Artists, activists, intellectuals, and other refugees swarmed to Zurich and met in bars and cafés, discussing the precarious future of Europe, and planning political or artistic revolutions. Romanian Jews escaping ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies, German and French citizens escaping conscription, they all gathered in neutral Switzerland. Pacifist poets such as Schickele, Leonhard Frank, and Franz Werfel lived in the city. Among the refugees were German poets Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and painter Marcel Janco, the Alsiatian painter Jean Arp.

Repelled by the utter madness with which the young were rushed to trenches of senseless slaughter, these artists had lost their faith in European bourgeois culture. The copying of external reality and the creation of a self-contained work of beauty no longer seemed to make sense to them. They were united by a conviction that the horrors around them were rooted in outdated morals and values. Throwing overboard all conventions and traditional sentimentalities, they sought an alternative unity of art and life. In order to do so, they aimed at establishing – in the words of Hugo Ball – a ‘playground of crazy emotions’. With that ambition in mind, Hugo Ball contacted Jan Ephraim, an elderly Dutch sailor and patron of the Holländische Meierei (Dutch dairy inn) who made a backroom available for a cabaret with singing, theatrics, music, visual art exhibitions, and all sorts of other performances that would disturb bourgeois feelings.

On 15 February 1916 Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors for the first time at no.1 Spiegelgasse. The press release – dated 2 February 1916 – which announced the opening of the nightclub is rather tame. It reads: ‘Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a centre for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals’. Ball took as his model the cabaret tradition of Paris and Berlin before the war. Voltaire, the philosopher who in his time was at war with the ‘spirit of the age’, was chosen as the godfather for the new movement. Refugee artists from all over Europe quickly besieged the new establishment.

Emmy Hennings, Hugo Ball’s partner, sang her own songs as well as many from the repertoires of cabaret legends such as Aristide Bruant, Erich Mühsam, and Frank Wedekind. A spirit of mockery soon took over. Each evening at the Cabaret included a succession of spectacles, dance, song, plays, a balalaika orchestra, etc. The French or Russian evenings were occasions for readings of poems by Max Jacob and Jules Laforgue, of extracts of Ubu Roi, as well as texts by Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. This was the age of manifestos – at times some twenty people read out declarations of various sorts simultaneously.

All visitors were welcome to take part in the performances which were presented to a noisy, mainly young audience. On 15 June 1916, with a print run of 500 copies, the only edition of the magazine Cabaret Voltaire appeared, edited both in French and German. In thirty-two pages, it included a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, texts by Kandinsky, ‘Parole in libertà’ by Marinetti, the reproduction of a poster by Marcel Janco and a drawing by Arp (on the cover). Ball and Tzara took the opportunity to announce the future publication of a magazine entitled Dada. Thus the word Dada appeared here for the very first time in print.


The Cabaret closed in June 1916, but Dadaïsm was just beginning. The Dadaists rented a room for one night at a guildhall named Zunfthaus zur Waag where they held their celebrated 14 July Dada Soirée which officially launched the movement with Ball’s now famous manifesto. In French, he explained, dada means hobby horse. What the poet did not mention is the fact that the word dada appears in a bawdy French song performed on various occasions by Eça de Queiroz’s marvellous creation of the shameless concubine Genoveva in his novel A tragédia da rua das Flores (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; written between 1877 and 1878, but published many years after the author’s death). All three nouns here are synonyms, although dada in this context would be best translated as stud-horse or stallion:

Chaque femme a sa toquade,
Sa marotte et son dada.

In German dada means good-bye, be seeing you sometime. In Romanian: yes indeed, you are right. With that declaration Hugo Ball launched Dadaïsm. The legend goes that the name was adopted by randomly sticking a knife into a dictionary and finding under the blade the noun dada. That night, Tzara read aloud his own first manifesto, Richard Huelsenbeck performed a phonetic poem, there were absurdist literary readings, works of art on display, and general chaos. Every gesture and every move was calculated to shock the audience with the aim of destroying traditional understanding of art and aesthetics. Dada was anti-art, and these performances were meant to be hideous, like horrors of war.

That same year, Tristan Tzara’s La première aventure céleste de M. Antipyrine, with coloured wood-cuts by Marcel Janco, was published in the ‘Collection Dada’. By 1917 the excitement generated by the Cabaret Voltaire had fizzled out and artists moved on to other places in Zurich such as the Galerie Dada at no. 19 Bahnhofstrasse (an initiative by Tzara), then later to Paris and Berlin. Politically, many of the personalities involved, and Ball in particular, were admirers of Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin who, in 1843, had also spent time in Zurich. Bakunin’s anarchism, to Hugo Ball, was ‘Dada in political disguise’. But it was another Russian political thinker who, in physical terms at least, found himself much nearer to the Cabaret Voltaire.

When Lenin arrived in Switzerland in 1914, he informed the authorities that he was neither an army deserter nor a coward, but a political exile. He had little difficulty gaining entry to the country. With his wife Nadia Krupskaya, he settled in bourgeois Bern. Politically, he did not win over any friends or comrades. In February 1916 he was granted permission to move to Zurich where he had access to the central library. The couple rented a two-room flat at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. It was here that he finished his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (the study was influenced by John Hobson’s thinking on the subject) – in spite of bad smells. Nadia wrote in her memoirs that the yard was filled with the stink of a nearby sausage factory. Did Lenin visit the Cabaret? Hugo Ball does not mention Lenin amongst the people attending the performances, but Huelsenbeck claims to have encountered Lenin in Zurich (ironically, the local police were more suspicious of the Dadaïsts than of the revolutionary thinker). Marcel Janco circulated stories according to which the shows were attended by Lenin and by another famous inhabitant of the city, Carl Jung. Self-promotion has always been one of the stronger aspects of the movement. In his Lénine Dada (1989) French writer Dominique Noguez imagined Lenin as a member of the Dada group and suggests how the meeting of minds influenced and transformed his vision of society. Leninism is a product of Dada. Noguez based his book on this intriguing question: could Lenin have been Dada incarnate? In 1917, with the help of Swiss representatives of the political left, Lenin received permission to return to St Petersburg. In April of that year he left the Spiegelgasse for good. Six months later, following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks seized control.

This then is the remarkable chain of events. In February 1916 Lenin and his wife settled at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors at no. 1 Spiegelgasse on 15 February of that same year. In Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) Lenin and Tzara stand opposed. The name of Spiegelgasse (the German ‘Spiegel’ means mirror) functions as structural and thematic base for the play which opposes two revolutionary characters, one who transformed the political, the other the artistic status quo. The mirror image postulates sameness and difference. One can look at this mirror image from a different angle. In one street, in the same month of the same year, two contrasting personifications of the idea of ‘avant-garde’, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin, stand shoulder to shoulder, staying virtually next door to one another, the one representing the artistic, the other the political interpretation of this controversial concept.

Henri de Saint-Simon was a leading social theorist in the post-Revolutionary period. In his vision of society, scientists play a dominant role. It was in this context that Saint-Simon introduced the notion of avant-garde. In a Mémoire sur la science de l’homme (1813), the author encourages contemporary scientists of rendering their services to the elevation of mankind, thus functioning as a ‘scientific avant-garde’. From the outset, Saint-Simon regarded the arts as a crucial part of his social system. Writers had to develop the poetic part of his new social system and influence public opinion. The anonymously published Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles (1825) concludes with a dialogue between an artist and a scientist in which the former pledges that ‘we, artists, will serve you as your avant-garde’. The political use of the military metaphor preceded the artistic one which can be traced back to the 1790s. The word was adopted in left-wing utopian ideology. In the progression from Saint-Simonian to French socialist thinking, avant-garde became solely related to the historic task of ‘working class parties’. A number of newspapers adopted the word in their title. Lenin applied the word avant-garde in his account of What Is to Be Done? (1902).

Napoleon exercised an enormous influence on the arts. Balzac was dazzled by Bonaparte and so was Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve, the greatest French critic of his age. What makes Sainte-Beuve’s jargon intriguing is his intimate knowledge of military matters. In a letter to Hugo (5 May 1845), he compared the early Romantics to the officers of the ‘Corps of Engineers who are sent ahead to clear the way, to lay a road for the army following behind’. Sainte-Beuve, biographer of Napoleon’s strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini (published in 1869), was well-read into military textbooks. His 1854 Stendhal essay reads like a lecture on military tactics, describing the author as some hussar in the vanguard who gallops up to the enemy’s position, but who also, no sooner has he got back to his own lines, needles the other troops to speed up their advance. When the critic refers to Stendhal as a ‘cheveau-léger d’avant-garde’, he used the metaphor in a well-considered manner. The cultural meaning of the term avant-garde originates in Sainte-Beuve’s critical imagery.

In aesthetics, the military metaphor of avant-garde gradually came to overshadow earlier metaphors of poetic exploration or artistic gamesmanship. The shift from explorer or athlete to soldier underlines the changing conditions under which the artist committed himself to his task. The first metaphors are part of Classicist thinking, as much as the latter constitutes an integral aspect of modernist attitudes. Contemporary critics have interpreted avant-garde in terms of a breach between artist and public, as a ‘tradition’ of heterodoxy and resistance. During the 1970s historians tended to confuse the political with the artistic use of the term. Avant-garde in art was judged to be left-wing, disruptive and anarchic. In the final analysis, the avant-gardist, like the colonist or athlete, metaphorically represents the mobility of the creative mind. The metaphor of avant-garde has been fertile in a sense that both artists and political utopians found a way of integrating the term in their belief-systems. One root, different branches. Two apartments, same street.

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