Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

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