My friend Jim is a bad, no make that very bad man! I don’t mean morally – that isn’t really up to me to judge – I mean he does bad things. Things like sending me links to sites where I spend far too much time browsing – one page leading to the other and then another. And he did exactly that yesterday by announcing that the French Print collection at the Van Gogh Museum was now available online in high quality images. Covering the fifteen years (1860-1905) that were the height of the form it includes many iconic works but also some little known treasures. While
wasting the day educating myself by wandering through the works of the Pauls – Signac and Gauguin, Henry Somm, Pierre Bonnard and Alfred Natanson I came across a series of twenty-two drawings under the title Le Café Concert created by Henri-Gabriel Ibels (right in a self-portrait) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Of course the later was a familiar name but Ibels was an unknown. He was a member of Les Nebis, a group of avant-garde artists that dominated the French art scene in the 1890s.
A Café Concert or Caf’Conc was a drinking establishment where light entertainment was offered in the form of popular ballads, operatic excerpts, humorous and often bawdy songs. They reached their zenith in the late 1800s when there were some one hundred and fifty in Paris alone. And of course what was popular in Paris spread quickly to the Provinces. Some were spartan – a café with a bar, a piano or small pump organ and a few local singers. Others were more elaborate with elegant decor, boxes for the privileged, a full orchestra and star singers. During the Deuxiéme Empire Caf’Cons were strictly regulated, the politically-connected owners of the musical theatres wanted no competition. The singers had to wear street clothes, there could be no sets, dialogue or dancing. No more than forty songs could be performed in one evening and the managers had to submit the musical programme each day to the police for approval. If there was any hint of subversion in the lyrics the programme was cancelled and their license could be revoked.
But the police went to far in 1867 when they arrested a popular actress from the Comedie-Française for reciting classical verse at the Café Eldorado, and for wearing a long black dress rather than street clothing. With the ensuing uproar the law was relaxed and café performers were allowed to wear costumes, recite dialogue, and have scenery on the stage. In 1894 Le Divan Japonais (the Japanese Divan) presented a little pantomime, Le Coucher de la Mariée (The Bride Going to Bed) and for the first time a “naked” woman (wearing a somewhat transparent blouse) was presented on stage. As scandalized as the good middle-class burgers of Paris claimed they were it was to spell the demise of the Caf’Conc and open the way for a new entertainment: the music hall.
Many of the performers who were to star at the Folies Bergère and the other grand Edwardian music halls learned their craft at les Ambassadeurs, Eldorado, Alcazar d’été, La Scala and the other exotically named caf’concs (my own favourite is that little trend setter Le Divan Japonais) that dotted Baron Haussmann’s newly opened boulevards.
Ibel and Lautrec’s prints capture many of the stars of the period including a wonderful Lautrec – unknown to me at least – of Can-Can dancer Jane Avril. Many of them are names that I recognize from various histories of the music hall I’ve read while others appear to have been popular at the time and then faded into the footnotes of French theatrical history.
Of course no compendium of the caf’conc vedettes would be complete without a portrait of one of the greatest of its performers Yvette Guilbert. She was frequently billed as a diseuse (a story teller) and her numbers were rowdy, funny and often just plain bawdy – their content belied by the innocent manner in which she presented them. Her fame went beyond the Boulevards and she was a great favourite in London and New York. She was to come out of retirement in 1934 to make several recordings – which became best sellers – for His Master’s Voice including one of her signature songs: Le Fiacre (the Hired Carriage).
Written in 1888 by Léon Xanrof it was one of many songs by the prolific composer-performer that Guilbert included in her repertoire. By the standards of the day, as with most of Xanrof’s lyrics, it could be considered rather risque.
A yellow and white fiacre with the curtains drawn goes clip-clop down the Boulevard; from the interior can be head the sounds of very loud kissing. A very feminine voice complains that “Léon” will have to take off his glasses as they are messing her hair. An old gentleman passing by recognizes the voice: it’s his wife! With another man! He runs after the carriage but slips and is run over. The woman sticks her head out to examine the situation and then reassures her Léon that it’s only her husband, he’s dead, everything is alright, and they can raise the blinds now and kiss in public. Oh and Léon don’t forget to tip the coachman generously!
Not everyone was entranced by Guilbert – a few critics sounded the demise of the French song tradition heralded by her “disgusting” songs. And at least one mourned the loss of a tradition that went back to the Troubadours – he was unaware than Mme Guilbert had become a well-respected authority on French medieval folk lore and music.
On this day in 1884: The Siege of Khartoum, Sudan begins, ending on January 26, 1885.