Posted on:Thursday 2nd April, 2020
Founded by Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir cabaret opened in 1881 in Montmartre, a district to the north of Paris that was not then part of the city and therefore not subject to city taxes. It was also (and is still) the location of a tiny vineyard which in the late nineteenth century was tended by nuns. Montmartre’s many establishments devoted to drinking were certainly a prime attraction for artists and pleasure seekers.
The cabaret was so successful that it moved to larger premises in 1885. Le Chat Noir was far more than a place to go for a drink and see variety acts – it was also a meeting place for artists of all types where new forms of art were created. Right from the start, the group of writers known as the Hydropathes met there (their name means that they feared water, presumably because they preferred stronger beverages). Art, science, and imagination collided in the work of Hydropathes such as Charles Cros, a writer who was also interested in alchemy and in 1877 invented the paléophone, a machine for reproducing sound.
Le Chat Noir was also the home of a journal, edited from 1886 by the humorist Alphonse Allais, which published short stories, poems, gossip and cartoons. Salis’ cod-medieval stories with fake ‘antique’ spelling and Gothic doodlings reflected the fake medieval décor of the cabaret, and on a rather higher artistic level, many of Paul Verlaine’s late poems were first published in the Chat Noir journal.
The composer Erik Satie, who like Allais was born in Honfleur in Normandy, first came to public attention in the Montmartre café scene. He was employed as second pianist at Le Chat Noir until 1891, accompanying singers and participating in a new form of Parisian multimedia entertainment – shadow plays. In the upstairs theatre, light was projected on a backdrop and cut-out figures cast shadows, as narrators or singers told stories accompanied by improvised sound effects, original or arranged music. These stories did not lack ambition – L’épopée (1886), by the cartoonist Caran d’Ache, was based on Napoleon’s Russian campaign – though the execution was homespun. For L’épopée, Caran d’Ache, Allais and George Auriol provided sound effects on percussion instruments, and Salis narrated the plot. Satie sometimes played harmonium as part of the musical ensemble, though as an improviser he was less skilled than another Montmartre regular, the composer and pianist Charles de Sivry, whose half-sister Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville was briefly married to Verlaine.
Le Chat Noir did not long survive Salis’ death in 1897, but its visual and cultural legacy live on. As I write, its world is distant, not only in time but in spirit. We are all looking forward to the time when, once again, we can meet friends in cafés and at live arts events, and when artists can come together to create new worlds.