For adventurous artists of the late nineteenth-century, Paris was the center of the universe. For the most avant-garde of the artists, it was the hilly district of Montmartre, in northern Paris that was the epicenter. Counter Culture recreates the heady atmosphere of Montmartre nightlife at the fin-de-siècle when raucous, irreverent artists, writers, performers, and composers formed groups with nonsensical names such as the Hydropathes and the Incohérents. Claiming Montmartre cabarets as their headquarters, these artists’groups employed humor, parody, and satire to create artworks, transforming cabarets from proverbial places where one went to drink, eat, and be merry into, in contemporary parlance, alternative art and performance spaces.
The Hydropathes, founded in 1878 by the poet Emile Goudeau, and the Incoherents, founded by the writer and publisher Jules Lévy in 1882, were two of the overlapping groups of artists, writers, and performers. It was they who first formalized the radical characteristics of the activities conceived in and emanating from cabarets such as the Chat Noir and Quat’z’Arts. The attitude pervading much of this work was known as fumisme, which mocked official values and societal norms through biting satire, puerile humor, and practical joking. (The French word fumisme literally means chimney sweep, but it can also be used to refer to a joker, crackpot, or fraud.) Focusing on the Chat Noir (1881-1897) and the Quat’z’Arts (1893-1910, this exhibition explores the development of the Montmartre cabaret from 1875 to 1905 as the primary promoter, catalyst and, often, site for the collaboration of artists, writers, composers, and performers. There they produced illustrated journals, books, dramatic pieces, music, puppet shows, and mounted proto-cinematic shadow theater performances.
A crucial element underlying all aspects of these radical, fin-de-siècle activities was a reliance on humorits anti-serious approach to art such as its parody of established canons of art and literatureand the fact that much of it was collaborative or even anonymous. Both the humorous and anonymous aspects render ridiculous the concepts of “masterpiece” and individual “genius,” which have been so important for the development of a commercial market for art. Perhaps this is one reason why the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérome equated the actions of the Inchohérents with “anarchism.” More destabilizing still, many of the activities and much of the artworks produced by the most radical late nineteenth-century avant-garde were in nontraditional media. Often ephemeral, multi-disciplinary, and conceptual in naturecharacteristics that still apply to the most radical art of our timethese truly avant-garde escapades escaped notice in art historical chronologies. Looking back at newspaper accounts of the time, and through the residueinvitations, posters, catalogues, drawingsof these activities, we can reconstruct this lively, unorthodox art scene. It was at the “counters” of Montmartre cabarets where these avant-garde artists congregated. There they used humor, public spectacle, and formal experimentation to contradict established norms and to set the stage for some of the most innovative art of the twentieth-century.
The exhibition was organized in conjunction with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Support for the exhibition has been provided by Ruth Bowman, agnès b., Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and the Abby Weed Grey Trust, with very special participation by Duggal Color Projects Inc.