The Chat Noir Cabaret in Paris – Shadow Theatre

I am sure that not many of you know something about the Chat Noir Cabaret in Paris but I am quite sure that almost all of you are familiar with this affiche (poster):

This black cat which once was the logo of the cabaret itself (the name Chat Noir means Black Cat) became such an iconic image that it entered in the art and history lovers’ imagination as a symbol of the long-gone Paris of the Boheme, a city made of artists and cabarets, boulevards and cafes, of glittering lights and melancholic shadows. More prosaically, nowadays, its fame is due to Parisian souvenir shops: you can find this cat all over Paris reproduced on any sort of items – from t-shirt to mug, to bottle-opener, to tote bag… especially in Montmartre, where the Chat Noir Cabaret was inaugurated by Rodolphe Salis in 1881.

The first address of this cabaret “dedicated to the Muses and to joy, under the auspices of the Chat Noir” was 84 Boulevard Rochechouart, in the smallest and cheapest accommodation possible but its fame spread so fast that in less than 4 years it moved to a larger and fancier venue at 12 Rue Victor-Massé. This success was due especially to the arrival of a group of radical young writers and artists called Les Hydropathes (“those who are afraid of water” – a nice way to say they drink only wine… we will talk about them in a future post). The new Chat Noir Cabaret was much more than a cabaret: it was an exhibition venue, the seat of a magazine of the same name and a shadow theatre. It is this last activity that fascinates me.

The Chat Noir shadow theatre was created there by the artist Henri Riviere and was all but simple. The basic technique of projecting shadows behind a screen quickly became a full show, often inspired to Paris and its modern life. Script, music, visual effect were so sophisticated and complex that up to ten stagehands were required to perform a single show. The illusion of perspective was achieved using staggered zinc silhouettes and coloured skies composed of layered painted glass sheets. If you go to the Musee d’Orsay, you can still see some of those silhouettes and a set with Montmartre’s windmills…

The shadow theatre’s success was so great that on 1896 it went on tour. This is when (and why) the famous affiche we all know was made by the artist Theophile Alexandre Steinlen.

Unfortunately Rodolphe Salis died in 1897 and his death put an end to his magic world made of light and shadows.

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