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Phillip Dennis Cate : Autour du Chat Noir. Arts et plaisirs à Montmartre 1880-1910 , Paris: Flammarion 2012, 192 S., zweisprachig: frz. und englisch, ISBN 978-2-0812-8612-2, EUR 25,50
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Merel van Tilburg
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Philippe Cordez
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Merel van Tilburg: Rezension von: Phillip Dennis Cate : Autour du Chat Noir. Arts et plaisirs à Montmartre 1880-1910 , Paris: Flammarion 2012, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 11 [15.11.2013], URL:

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Phillip Dennis Cate : Autour du Chat Noir

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As its title indicates, the bilingual exhibition catalogue Autour du Chat Noir takes the most famous fin-de-siècle Montmartre cabaret as its centripetal focal point. It aims to provide an insight in the "arts and pleasures" not only in, but also "around" the Chat Noir. This geographic outlook is in line with the programme of the Musée de Montmartre, defined as "preserving the art and safeguarding the popular traditions of Montmartre in order to present its history and its contribution to universal art." (9) Accordingly, the opening essay is a short and dense socio-political and historical introduction to the village's specific, libertarian place in Paris. Particularly interesting is the statement that the Montmartre quest for pleasure must be understood as a brief moment of relief after the violence of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.

However, the exhibition title "Around the Chat Noir" is not only to be understood geographically: Le Chat noir was also the name of the cabaret's journal (1882-1893). Philip Dennis Cate, the curator of the exhibition and one of the specialists of the arts of late nineteenth-century Montmartre, situates the exhibition in the field of 'high' art, by describing it as an investigation into "the way in which avant-garde artists defined their art as 'modern'" (11). Notwithstanding the colloquial term "pleasures" and the romantic term "bohemian" in the English exhibition title, Cate identifies Montmartre as "the primary theatre of modernist activity in Paris." (23) His concise and succinct essay "Autour du Chat Noir" gives an overview of the artistic events leading up to the opening of Le Chat Noir, of its programme and artistic collaborators, and of its place among the popular arts such as dance and the circus. He briefly points out how the Chat Noir aesthetics "resonated with the nascent modernist concerns" of a large group of modernist painters (29). It is therefore impossible not to compare this catalogue with the well-researched and extremely insightful earlier study directed by Cate, The Spirit of Montmartre. Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905. [1] This book, accompanying an eponymous exhibition, also focused on the importance of Montmartre art and popular culture in the history of western avant-garde art. Cate states in the introduction: "The book's primary aims are to reveal the essence of Montmartre's artistic, intellectual environment, to analyse its inextricable relations with an important, multidisciplinary body of fin-de-siècle art, literature, and music, and to indicate that œuvre's connections with other important works, which both precede and follow it [...]." [2] Less broad in scope, we may ask in what ways the present catalogue updates and contributes to the research on the arts of Montmartre - a moment in the history of art for which the scholarly bibliography is still frustratingly short. [3]

The publication contains four essays and a catalogue of the 232 works included in the exhibition. All of these are reproduced in colour, one of the stronger points of the book. Regrettably, only about fifty objects are discussed in detail in catalogue entries in a "List of Works" at the end of the book. Those images discussed in the essays are reproduced near the texts, which makes it difficult to find the reproductions when starting from the "List of Works". Moreover, the "Catalogue of Works in the Exhibition" preceding it does not always respect the numbering of the "List of Works". Instead, it follows an order that seems to be imposed by visual constraints, or by the seven thematic sections of the exhibition. To complicate matters further, the choice for the seven thematic sections, which rather surprisingly include "The Nabis" and "Symbolism", is not extensively discussed in the catalogue essays.

The three remaining essays focus on different aspects of the Chat Noir cabaret and its artistic resonance. Diana B. Schiau offers an intelligent and dense reflection on the idea of the cabaret as a festive place designed as a museum. She couples this with an analysis of the journal as a "laboratory of the nation's memory", a mirror of contemporary society (43). The relationships between the Chat Noir cabaret aesthetic and the contents of its journal are scrutinized from the viewpoints of the humorous and complex, fumiste use of metaphors and mythologies, notably that of the black cat and of the symbolic opposition of the colours black and gold. [4] The essay is slightly 'overspecialized', omitting chronological and contextual details for readers less familiar with the subject. On that same note, a chronology would have been welcome in a catalogue discussing so many different artists and groups. Schiau discusses at length the iconography of certain illustrations in the Chat Noir journal that are not reproduced in the catalogue, while her descriptions of the interior of the cabaret lack references to visual illustration - found elsewhere in the catalogue.

Michela Niccolai's essay on the relationships between music and the stage in the Chat Noir performances is a "brief musical survey, which does not claim to cover everything" (66) and is indeed significantly less thorough than Steven Moore Whiting's essay "Music on Montmartre" in The Spirit of Montmartre. [5] The survey examines both Montmartre popular songs, those performed at the Chat Noir and other venues, and the musical part of the shadow theatre performances, for which the Chat Noir was best known, and which perhaps best accomplished the desired "union of the arts".

Finally, Luce Abélès's in-depth study on Maurice Donnay's and Henri Rivière's shadow theatre performance Ailleurs! (1891) and its exceptional place in the programme of the Chat Noir shadow repertoire (1886-1896) provides a real contribution to the scholarship on the Chat Noir. Abélès discusses both the complex aesthetic process behind Rivière's visualization of Donnay's piece, and the way in which this revue revealed socio-political concerns of its time. The Musée de Montmartre's complete collection of Rivière's zinc 'stage sets' and accompanying prints after the performance allow for a very detailed insight into this shadow theatre performance.

When the Chat Noir closed its doors in 1897, its proprietor Rodolphe Salis declared that Montmartre at that time demanded an aesthetic very different from rather garish bohemian interior of the Chat Noir. Despite the shuttering of the Chat Noir in 1897, the chronological scope of the exhibition extends to 1910 and the "fun-loving" Belle Epoque. This chronological extension is but one of the regrettable treatments of this subject. In light of the exhibition's aims, it would have been interesting to further explore the relationships between Montmartre cabaret, Symbolism and the Nabis. Furthermore, the many images of ballet dancers in the exhibition raise the question of the aesthetic of Montmartre dance and its relationships with other forms of Parisian dance (Loïe Fuller!) around 1900. Thus, while giving a rich insight into the Chat Noir cabaret, the essays sometimes are redundant, notably in descriptions of the interior of the cabaret, while at other times the authors of the essays broach interesting questions that remain open (the union of the arts, the relationship with Symbolism). Finally, a number of rather colloquial words and phrases in the English translations of the French essays do not do justice to the authors or to the project of presenting Montmartre popular arts as an important branch of avant-garde art.


[1] Philip Dennis Cate / Mary Shaw (eds.): The Spirit of Montmartre. Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, exh. cat., Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, the Society of the Four arts, Palm Beach, the Samuel P. Harn Museum, University of Florida, Gainesville. New Brunswick, NJ, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1996.

[2] Philip Dennis Cate: "Introduction" in: The Spirit of Montmartre, vi-vii.

[3] The bibliography for the present catalogue comprises 18 entries; the selected bibliography in Spirit of Montmartre only counts 10 entries.

[4] The term fumisme, which, according to the Chat Noir composer Georges Fragerolle was the philosophy underlying the cabaret's aesthetic, is not discussed in detail in this catalogue. In The Spirit of Montmartre (23), Cate extensively discusses fumisme as: "a way of life, an art form that rested on skepticism and humour, of which the latter was often a black variety verging on the morbid and the macabre. As Fragerolle stated, fumisme 'made art for art's sake'. Fumisme had no social or humanitarian agenda; [...] the function of fumistes was to counteract the pomposity and hypocrisy they perceived as characterizing so much of society."

[5] Steven Moore Whiting: "Music on Montmartre", in: The Spirit of Montmartre, 159-198.

Merel van Tilburg