Montmartre has always held a powerful fascination for me. Fin-de-siècle artists, musicians and writers gathering in smoky enclaves, exchanging ideas over hazy glasses of la fée verte. Starving intellectuals, actors, aristocrats–famous and infamous–all rubbing elbows in the back alley cafés, secret salons, and boisterous nightspots of the Paris demimonde. My kingdom for a time machine to spend just one magical night at one of their soirées!
I was thrilled to find out that the Musée de Montmartre was presenting Autour du Chat Noir (Around the Black Cat-Arts and Pleasure-Montmartre 1880-1910), an exhibition about one of the most mythical places in Montmartre, Le Chat Noir cabaret.
Founded in 1881 by Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir was the first avant-garde literary, artistic and musical cabaret in Paris. Salis himself said, “The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. One rubs shoulders with the most important men in Paris, who meet with foreigners from all four corners of the globe.” The logo, designed by illustrator Adolphe Willette, was a mischievous black cat perched on a crescent moon.
After winding my way through Montmartre’s steep stairs and cobblestone streets, I arrived at the Musée de Montmartre, which is composed of 17th and 18th century buildings and a large collection of gardens–the last vestiges of country life before Montmartre became a part of Paris. The Autour du Chat Noir exhibition was in the Bel-air, a house dating from 1660. To enter, I had to pass through a grassy courtyard criss-crossed with gravel paths. Dusk was settling in and the typical Paris drizzle sprinkled a light mist over the lawn. A small black cat, like a cleverly deployed shill, was lolling under a lone tree. I had to stop and laugh–was this a publicity stunt for the Chat Noir exhibition, or was this cat the museum mascot? Like a character from Alice in Wonderland, the little feline answered with an enigmatic stare.
The Autour du Chat Noir exhibtition recreates the literary, artistic and musical atmosphere of Le Chat Noir cabaret and fin-de-siècle Montmartre with more than 300 works by artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard, Adolphe Willette, Henri Rivière, The Incoherents, Nabis, Symbolists and Humorists. Le Chat Noir was a place of innovation and improvisation filled with music, poetry, literature and wacky impromptu performances.
At the entrance, a yellow and black sign welcomed patrons with the admonition “to be modern.” One of the more colorful characters was Parisian writer and publisher Jules Lévy, who founded Les Arts Incohérents (The Incoherents) art movement–a play on the phrase “les arts décoratifs.” The Incoherents presented work that was deliberately irrational and iconoclastic, such as the illustration by Eugène Bataille for Le Rire magazine (The Laugh), which depicts an augmented Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. The pipe was most likely a nod to the Fumiste artist groups.
A highlight of the exhibition is a fantastic recreation of Le Chat Noir’s famous zinc shadow play theatre, developed by Incoherent member Henri Rivière. Using back-lit zinc cut-out figures which appeared as silhouettes, Rivière created 43 shadow plays on a great variety of subjects from myth, history and the Bible.
But why a cat?
Regarded as a sacred animal in many mythologies, the cat is also an important literary and artistic figure. Cats were a major theme for Art Nouveau painter and printmaker Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, who made many of the posters for Le Chat Noir cabaret. Inspired by a metal sign by Adolphe Willette, Steinlen saw the cat as the main hero of a picture narrative. The black cat on the sign comes to life and seems to be trying to strangle a drunk with its tail. The sun comes up and the two gendarmes cart off the staggering drunkard. The black cat represents the conflict between shadow and light, producing a story showing insoluble tensions between these two symbolic forces.
When I exited Bel-air house, the black cat was gone. I asked the women working at the museum gift store if the cat was part of the exhibition or belonged to anyone who worked there. They told me it showed up in the courtyard from time to time, but no one knew where it came from or who the owner was. Mysterious and enigmatic as Montmartre itself, Le Chat Noir will always be part of our dreams, waking or otherwise.
Photos by Kyrian Corona
Musée de Montmartre
12, rue Cortot, 75018 Paris
+33 1 49 25 89 37