Le Chat Noir Exposed: The Absurdist Spirit Behind a 19th Century French Cabaret

Le Chat Noir Exposed: The Absurdist Spirit Behind a 19th Century French Cabaret
Caroline Crépiat

Black Scat Books, San Francisco, CA, 2021
182 pp. Paper $15.95
ISBN: 9781735615967.

Reviewed by: 
Edith Doove
November 2021

As Caroline Crépiat indicates in her introduction, most people that know Le Chat Noir will identify it with the eponymous poster by Steinlen from 1896 of a black cat against a yellow background. The cabaret Le Chat Noir in Montmartre was then at the height of its glory, popular because of its evenings filled with songs, poetry, and the shadow puppet plays of Henri Rivière, but also because of its decorations with paintings and illustrations or the waiters dressed as academicians. Lesser known is that Le Chat Noir was also a weekly (news)paper that was published between 14 January 1882 and 4 September 1897 which amounts to no less than 780 issues. It was the follow-up of L’Hydropath, the paper of the Club des Hydropaths that was founded by the poet and journalist Émile Goudeau that counted Alphonse Allais amongst its members. Goudeau made sure that Le Chat Noir became the new home of the Hydropaths, one of those other groups that were part of the mostly forgotten, but at the time highly popular fumisme movement that excelled in hardcore absurdism and laughter, making Dadaism almost turn pale.

Crépiat takes the paper Le Chat Noir as the point of departure to document “the grievances, stakes and strategies that drive the group”, but also to establish what formed their specific aesthetic. She does this in three parts that respectively discuss A Polymorphic Groupism, The Subversion of the Serious Discourse, and Embodying Poetic Eccentricity. Crépiat is a specialist of French fin de siècle periodicals, humour, and language whose work has been widely published in France. The current publication brings together texts that were published in collective works, with some of them specially rewritten and translated by Douglas Skinner. Crépiat first sketches the dynamics of the group before going into more specialist subjects. A society in itself, including a ‘Marseillaise des chat noirs’ and a ‘Faculté des sciences du Chat Noir’ it was first and foremost a place of multidisciplinary collaborations. Amongst the artist members themselves, but more specifically with the audience. The latter were constantly invited to participate, but were also frustrated by the nonsensical puzzles, contests and riddles that filled the pages of le Chat Noir, often using empty spaces or various punctuation marks instead of clear text. It was in every aspect important to confuse. As for the various poems of which Crépiat discusses a wide range, their authors excelled in reading them aloud, if not shouting them, thus prefiguring the famous shout out Berlin dadaist Raoul Hausmann.

Amongst the specialist subjects that Crépiat discusses figure obviously the scatological aspects, their view on money and society, but also the importance of translation, interestingly seen by Crépiat as a possible highlight of modernism. But obviously the chats noirs would use translation in an absurd way, rather freely or ‘ameliorated’.

One of the interesting aspects of this small unique publication is that Crépiat also pays attention to they that although Le Chat Noir was mainly a male affair, there were also some female members. These women took the bigger risks as they deformed their approved social status in the same way their fellow male chats noirs did with the accepted forms of cabaret, poetry and translation. Of them Marie Krysinska, poet and musician called ‘the Calliope of the Chat Noir’, was the most emblematic figure of the cabaret who contributed regularly to the paper and was a specialist in shouting her poetry. Although Le Chat Noir could have a somewhat misogynist undertone, the female members were highly respected. They gave yet another twist to the fumiste attitude in distorting the description of so-called appropriate female subjects as fabric or flowers in an emancipative way. Or as one of the other female members, the actor and poet Irma Perrot would say: “The ultimate for a fumiste woman? She dissipates whenever it’s time to take a group photo!”