IT IS HARD to believe what they tell us about the Cafe' Aubette, namely that the people who used it didn't like it at all. It is hard to believe because the Cafe' Aubette, as partially reconstructed by the Hirshhorn Museum's talented carpenters for the exhibition, "De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia," is one of the more enchanting places in the world.
The cafe', which still exists in the same 18th-century building in Strasbourg, France, figures in the history of de Stijl because in 1926 Theo van Doesburg, the guiding light of this pioneering modernist movement, was commissioned to design its interiors in toto along with his artist-friends, Jean Arp and Sauphie Tauber-Arp. The Aubette was a huge, amazing place. Maybe it still is, although nothing remains of the splendid interiors conceived by van Doesburg and his friends.
You could go to the Aubette for an afternoon tea in a silvery room designed by Tauber-Arp, or plunge into the crowded "cave" to be surrounded by Arp's biomorphic murals, or entertain 100 aquaintances in van Doesburg's "large party room," or enjoy silent movies and then dance to jazz in his "cinema-dance hall." There were other rooms--a secluded bar, a cafe'-brasserie, a cafe'-restaurant--to which you could repair according to need, or whim.
Hirshhorn craftsmen concentrated upon building a scale model of van Doesburg's cinema-dance hall, which the artist legitimately regarded as a milestone in his efforts to unite the very different arts of painting and architecture--to create, as he said, "the total artistic design."
The carpenters did a great job. There is something intrinsically magical about the scale of their reconstruction. It's just big enough, as Hirshhorn director Abram Lerner remarked, "to make you want to dance in it," but it also is small enough, like an oversize doll house, to make you stay away. The strange scale is emphasized by the size of the 1920s movie stills flashed upon the screen, and by the cutout figures of van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian that someone placed inside the room. Even the wonderful music, tapes of the King Oliver Jazz Band selected from the Smithsonian's archives, sounds small--tinkly and distant, as if somehow you were hearing it the day before yesterday.
For these and other reasons a wall label informing us that the Aubette interiors were "unpopular" comes as a surprise. The suspicious sentence is worth quoting in its entirety. "That the Aubette interiors proved to be unpopular among patrons," we are told, "in no way detracts from their historical significance."
This is perhaps half true: Van Doesburg's designs, especially for the party room and the cinema-dance hall, are significant. They represent a major clarification of his own thinking. Intentionally he contrasted the one with the other. In the party room he developed his concept of space according to tried-and-true de Stijl principles: vertical and horizontal rectangles of color on walls and ceiling, respecting the basic rectangular geometry of the room. In the cinema-dance hall, following his idea of "counter-compositions," he turned the rectangles on edge, creating a much more active space and traveling a long way toward his ideal of a "new architecture" that is "elementary," "active," "open," "anti-cubic" and "anti-decorative."
These ideas, pursued more or less at the same time by the Russian Constructivists and other members of the de Stijl movement (notably Vilmos Huszar and Gerrit Rietveld) have left a lasting impression upon the look and feel of interior spaces in the 20th century.
But if the Aubette interiors were indeed unpopular, that, too, is significant. Apparently the conclusion is based upon a letter van Doesburg wrote to a friend in the fall of 1928. "When the Aubette was just finished, before its inauguration," he wrote, "it was really good and significant. . . . Yet as soon as the proprietors heeded the opinion of their customers (who of course considered it cold and uncomfortable) all sorts of things which did not belong were carried into it. . . . The artist creates beyond the public and demands new conditions diametrically opposed to old conventions. . . . This is now my firm conviction."
It is clear to see that van Doesburg, the bitterly disappointed artist-idealist at age 45, was throwing up his hands in the face of mundane reality. In a way, that is the story of the whole utopian movement called de Stijl. But faced with the recreated enchantment of the Cafe' Aubette at the Hirshhorn, it is difficult to believe van Doesburg wasn't exaggerating by a mile. The customers must have liked it, n'est-ce pas?