Wicked Humour: The Hydropathes and Incohérents

Artistic groups sprang from the cabarets of Montmartre. Two of these were the Incohérents and the Hydropathes. I had never heard of them before researching this topic. Likely because they’re both seminal groups for more famous movements like the Dadaists. Also because most of the information about them is in French. (I am not fluent.) But they’re an interesting bunch.

One of the new thrilling groups was the Hydropathes, spearheaded by Émile Goudeau.

Emile_Goudeau
Emile Goudeau

The artistic and poetic Les Hydropathes banded together before the establishment of the Chat Noir Cabaret. They were active 1878 – 80. According to Arnold Fields, The Hydropathes’ confusing name “could mean someone who loved water, someone who hated water, or someone who had water feet.” Their name alone captures their wordplay, ambiguity, and humour.

L'Hydropathe journal. 1870
L’Hydropathe journal. 1870

The semi-private club met at the Café de la Rive Gauche and the Grand Pinte. They shared republican, anticlerical, and literary ideas. They also listened to poetry and other creative acts. Goudeau described his movement’s goal:

Penetrate the brains of those young students destined to join the ranks of the haute
bourgeoisie with the notions of art and poetry.

Meaning let’s educate the soon-to-be-privileged about the arts. (Of no particular artistic movement.) Their ideas caught on. Soon they had to enlarge venues.

Their literary journal was their most memorable contribution.

Hydropathe_Sarah_Bernhardt_1879.jpeg
One of the members, the famous Sarah Bernhardt

The Hydropathes disbanded in 1881. Many remaining members emigrated to the newly established Chat Noir.

A quick step back.

Rodolphe Salis came to Paris in 1872 to pursue artistic ambitions. To his chagrin, he learned he wasn’t much of a writer or painter. So, Salis settled for a job painting backgrounds for theaters. He networked. Soon he had the idea to start a café of his own for his surrounding group of artist friends. With the support of the Hydropathes and his father’s cash, he started Le Chat Noir. It was a huge success.

In 1881, a month after the establishment of Le Chat Noir, Salis and Goudeau
started Le Chat Noir, a literary journal. Le Chat Noir took the experience of the cabaret and fashioned it into written form. Whimsical and bawdy illustrations accompanied the texts.

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The journal was published every Saturday in a four-page format. The first page featured articles and essays. The second page displayed short articles, poetry, drawings, and caricatures. The third page highlighted art and comics by artists such as Steinlein. And the fourth page was full of advertisements and reviews.

Advertisements engulfed reviews in the later years of the cabaret. A far too familiar phenomena.

CHAT_NOIR_journal,_number_152,_6_Decembre_1884

The self-referencing advertisements echo Hydropathe humour.

Since its founding by Julius Caesar for the vigorous artists of our time, the Chat Noir cabaret has not ceased to be the obligatory meeting place for everyone who is seriously a lover of art.

Goudeau was the first editor in chief and he loosely based Le Chat Noir off of his former
publication L’Hydropathe. Satire, caricature, and snide self-referential humour are all throughout the literary and artistic journal. It poked fun at the bourgeoisie, sometimes directly. If you took it too seriously you were the butt of the joke.

Salis gave his editors a lot of flexibility to cover whatever they wanted. His only order was to generate laughter. But his own touch came in the form of self-publicity.

It is high time to correct an error that has weighed on more than sixty whole generations…We read in Genesis that Noah’s Ark dropped anchor on Mount Ararat. Mount Ararat, what can that mean? Read: Montmartre!…So Montmartre is the cradle of humanity.

The ludicrousness of Salis’ flippant statements made the readers laugh. Yet while ridiculous, they indeed helped attract the flocking masses to Montmartre and his cabaret. The humour of the journal mimicked the ironic and aimless comedy the Hydropathes once practiced.

800px-Henri_de_Sta_-_Le_Chat_noir_journal
Le Chat noir Journal, Henri de Sta, 1890

Other artistic groups also migrated to Le Chat Noir, such as the Incohérents. The group was led by Jules Lévy and Emile Cohl. They were attracted to the absurdity and humour of Le Chat Noir cabaret. (Man, all these people in Belle Epoque Paris rubbed shoulders.)

Portrait_de_Jules_Lévy_par_Adolphe_Willette_-_1907
Jules Levy, by Adolphe Willette, 1907

Lévy was influenced by the success of Le Chat Noir and The Hydropathes. He created his own group, known as The Incohérents, with support from the Chat Noir members.

chatnoir82

They used childish and humorous drawings to tease the system. Lévy described it as “an exhibition of drawings by people who do not know how to draw”. The disregard for high art especially made fun of academy sponsored pieces.

Remember the guy who put his glasses on the floor and people took it for art? The Incohérents would love that. Self-referencing mockery of art and artistic pretensions. If you “got it” you didn’t get it.

One of the most famous examples is the fumiste piece spoofing the Mona Lisa by placing a pipe in her mouth. This was decades before the Dadaists from the Cabaret Voltaire and Marchel Duchamp.

The Joconde smoking pipe, Sapeck, 1887
The Joconde smoking pipe, Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), 1887

Lévy declared the Incohérents wanted “to cure the boredom and pessimism of contemporary existence by rejuvenating public life.” He viewed intelligent people of the 1880s as homebodies. Lévy wanted to bring them out to the street again through his exhibitions. He was successful.

In October 1882 the first Incohérent show exhibited at Lévy’s home. The main
focus of this exhibition was caricatures, by the likes of Cohl, and Henri
Grey.

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Lévy’s exhibition of the pranksters’ art completely affronted the artistic community educated by the Academy. But it served to impart the public to stop taking art so seriously. In 1883, the Incohérents’ show brought in more than 20,000 visitors in a month. Due to its popularity and success of this show, the exhibition afterwards became annual until 1893. Eventually, masked balls were added to the repertoire. It became a hot spot to be seen.

The Incohérents’ success further proved that dark and raucous humour could be well received in Parisian culture. Even by the bourgeoisie they often lampooned. The group later influenced artistic groups who in turn overshadowed the group.

Previous Post: Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre’s Mass Appeal


Fields, Armond. Le Chat Noir. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1993.

Gendron, Bernard. Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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