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Montmartre Show Evokes Belle Epoque of Can-Can Girls

'The Chat Noir on Tour'
"The Chat Noir on Tour" (1896) by Theophile Steinlen. The poster is on view at the Musee de Montmartre through June 2. Source: Musee de Montmartre, Paris via Bloomberg

In many cultures, black cats are viewed as evil omens, especially if they cross your path from right to left. For the Pilgrim Fathers, they were incarnations of the Devil.

That was obviously not the opinion of the writers and artists who, in 1881, founded Paris’s most famous cabaret, the Chat Noir.

“Autour du Chat Noir,” the show at the charming Musee de Montmartre, evokes the Belle Epoque when the neighborhood around La Butte, the highest point in Paris, was the headquarters of the avant-garde and nightlife not known for its innocence.

The suburb of Montmartre had been incorporated into the capital only in 1860 -- much to the chagrin of its inhabitants. It’s no accident that the Paris Commune, the 1871 rebellion against the government, started there.

A room in the museum recalls the two bloody months that ended with more than 20,000 dead.

The rebellion of the performers at the Chat Noir was less lethal. They were happy to provoke the bourgeoisie with a mix of satirical, nonsensical and bawdy songs -- and the bourgeois loved it.

In 1885, the Chat Noir moved into a bigger, elaborately furnished townhouse and added shadow plays to its program. Its old place was renamed the Mirliton and taken over by the singer Aristide Bruant, well known from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters.

Sentimental Journey

For Phillip Dennis Cate, former director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University and the show’s curator, the Chat Noir is just the starting point for a sentimental journey through Montmartre’s golden age before the muses crossed the Seine and moved to Montparnasse.

The Chat Noir is long gone. Other venues are still going strong, such as the Moulin Rouge or Le Lapin Agile, Picasso’s favorite hangout.

It was at the Lapin Agile that the funniest joke of the Belle Epoque was cooked up: At the 1910 Salon des Independants, an abstract painting titled “Sunset on the Adriatic Sea” was hailed as a masterpiece. As it turned out, it was the work of a donkey to whose tail pranksters had tied a paint brush.

In 1912, Frede Gerard, the owner of the cabaret and the donkey, sold “Au Lapin Agile,” a canvas Picasso had given him as a thank you for many drinks, for 20 dollars. In 1989, it was auctioned at Sotheby’s for 41 million dollars.

Inside Cabaret

Don’t try to find it among the 300 or so paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints and posters in the exhibition. What you get instead is an interior of the cabaret -- quite good, actually -- painted by another habitue named Georges Villa.

Toulouse-Lautrec, by contrast, who immortalized the can-can dancers at the Moulin Rouge, is well represented. So are Jules Cheret and Theophile Steinlen, the masters of the Belle Epoque poster.

The show also covers the Theatre Libre and the Theatre de l’Oeuvre, the leading avant-garde stages of the time. Strictly speaking, neither of them was located in the Montmartre neighborhood. Spiritually speaking, however, they were family.

“Ubu Roi,” Alfred Jarry’s scatological king, who greeted the spectators at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre with the opening line “Merdre!” was a not-too-distant relative to the hookers and lushes the great diseuse Yvette Guilbert impersonated at the Chat Noir.

“Autour du Chat Noir: Arts & Plaisirs a Montmartre 1880-1910” runs through June 2.


(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on London theater, Richard Vines on food and Ryan Sutton on New York restaurants..

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