The Four Cats Café
Sitges was too far from the city to serve as the main cathedral of the new religion of art. For that purpose, Russinyol, Casas, and Utrillo created the Four Cats Café, hiring Pere Romeu to assist Utrillo in managing it. Close to the Plaza of Catalunya, the café, art gallery,
puppet theater, and beer hall occupied the ground floor of a small apartment building designed by Puig i Cadafalch (see map 1). On the sign at the entrance to the café was a picture of some mischievous cats attributed to the young Picasso. The name Four Cats had two sources. One was a Catalan saying, "No one's here but us four cats"—meaning a gang. The other source was undoubtedly the Chat Noir, the famous Parisian café where Miquel Utrillo and Pere Romeu had begun their artistic careers manipulating shadow puppets.
Although shadow puppetry now seems exotic, it was a popular entertainment in late-nineteenth-century Paris and Barcelona. More than any other popular art, it represented a blend of sound and illusion, much in the vein of movies and music videos today. Shadow puppet theater resembled cinema in other ways as well. Sometimes lewd, puppetry was not considered cultivated—though, like film, it could be arty. Unlike stage plays, shadow puppet acts were seen on a white screen in a darkened room, thus promoting the dreamlike state that morphine users like Russinyol sought, a sense of totality. Then, too, the experience of drifting into a fantasy world structured by images projected onto a screen was shared with a larger public—another parallel with the movies.
From the early nineteenth century on, shadow puppetry had been popular in Barcelona. The screen, slicked down with oil or water to make it translucent, was usually set up in a large apartment or loft. The "actors" were heavy cardboard figures mounted on wooden bases. Wire strings attached to movable heads and joints enabled the jumping-jack characters to engage in swordplay, coy manipulations of fans or handkerchiefs, or broad head movements. More refined action was inhibited by the fact that the audience was seeing everything in silhouette. Lanterns in which lime was burned provided illumination (limelight) until finally, at the end of the nineteenth century in places like the Four Cats, electricity could provide the steady stream of light that brought scenery and characters into sharp relief.
The plays varied. At first, little comedies focused on dramatic moments like lion hunts and falling bridges, but the audiences tired of such scenes, and so, gradually, narratives emerged. Romantic stories of love and death based on popular legends appeared in shadow puppet plays performed in Catalan in the 1830s; then farces with their bawdy overtones—so popular in legitimate Castilian-language theater—entered the repertoire, as well as presentations of such popular entertainments
as bullfighting (prefiguring Picasso's ink-blot toreadors of almost one hundred years later).
Pere Romeu and Miquel Utrillo brought to life Russinyol's dream of using aesthetic experiences to create a sense of artistic community. Pere Romeu—puppeteer, auto mechanic, roller-skating rink operator, gym owner, cabaret proprietor, and sportsman—was just the kind of artistic entrepreneur Russinyol was looking for to guide the project. Lincolnesque in both height and homeliness, he was also short-tempered and brusque. He looked like a habitué of the Parisian Latin Quarter; according to the visiting Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, "he had a long face surrounded by stringy black hair, below which was a huge tie that trumpeted its loud colors to shock the bourgeoisie." He was a late-nineteenth-century bohemian who believed that his life was an attack on bourgeois materialist values and that he was born to make art.
Romeu seems to have come alive in Paris when he was in his early twenties. He took Toulouse-Lautrec's friend and subject, the cabaret manager Aristide Bruant, as a model for the role he hoped to play in promoting artistic entertainment, bringing together avant-garde crafts-people and artists and providing an atmosphere where art could flourish amid popular entertainments. In the meantime, he found work in cafés, where he developed his skills as a puppeteer. In the mid-eighties in Paris, he met Miquel Utrillo at the Chat Noir. Utrillo, one of the few avant-garde Catalan artists actually born in Barcelona, was a lifelong folklorist. He sometimes performed Catalan dances like the cirici in Parisian cafés, seeking to acquaint audiences with folk dances that he found both beautiful and strange. More of a student and scholar than Romeu, Utrillo had been trained as an engineer, and he went to Paris to work at the Institut National Agronomique. But his heart was in cabarets. He worked with Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, the socialist illustrator who contributed drawings to the Chat noir , the journal published by the cabaret. It was through a job as correspondent for the Barcelona newspaper Vanguardia , however, that Utrillo managed to support himself in Paris between 1889 and 1893. He had an affair during this time with artist Suzanne Valandon and may have fathered her son, the painter Maurice Utrillo, to whom he gave his name.
Utrillo's technological skills and his artistic interests drew him to shadow puppetry, with which he must have been familiar from his childhood. In 1891, he enticed the composer Erik Satie into providing
music for a puppet show he was producing in the basement of the nightclub Auberge du Clou. As a trained engineer, Utrillo was an expert at special effects. He knew "how to bring together art and science as brothers, to obtain rare contrasts of color with changing effects of light," Russinyol reported.
Utrillo and Romeu traveled with Léon-Charles Marot's Théâtre des Ombres Parisiennes to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, where the shadow puppet plays "Le virtuose" and "Une page d'amour" by Steinlen and "La conquête de la lune" by Miquel Utrillo were scheduled. When the fair closed, Utrillo went on to Cuba and then New York, where he again worked on puppet shows for a while before his return to Barcelona in 1895. Romeu, for his part, traveled to New York and San Francisco, making contacts with puppeteers along the way. He returned to Barcelona and participated in the Modernist Festival that Russinyol organized in Sitges in 1894. Three years later, in 1897, he and Utrillo helped to found the Four Cats, where they almost immediately launched shadow puppet performances.
The people whom Pere Romeu attracted to the café were bohemian artists, a few of them independently wealthy but most lower middle class. They came largely from artisanal families ranging from noodle and button makers, who lived above their shops, to jewelers and iron-mongers. There was the tailor Benet Soler Vidal, nicknamed "Scraps," who traded suits and pants to young dandies like Picasso in exchange for individual and family portraits. Juli González, whose whole family were wrought-iron workers responsible for balconies, door knockers, lamp posts, and gates patterned on ancient motifs, also frequented the Four Cats, as did the jeweler Lluís Bonnin. González moved to Paris and became a sculptor; Bonnin, who tried his hand as an illustrator and a painter, moved to Nice in 1900, where he remained a jeweler. Other habitués were Julià Pi and his father, Juli, who doubled as a messenger for the borough of Gracia when he was not creating the plays for hand puppets that he and his son performed together at theaters and cafés.
Utrillo, Romeu, and Russinyol promoted the integration of avant-garde Parisian art with popular art at the Four Cats and to that end launched a shadow puppet theater there in December 1897. The first performance of the sombras artísticas , artistic shadow theater, used sets designed by Utrillo and Ramón Pitxot. Two more programs were presented before April 1898, when the shadow plays were discontinued. Although shadow puppets, as Utrillo and Romeu conceived them, created a total theater of the senses, blending music, movement, and paint-
ing, they proved no match for silent films, which began to open in Barcelona in the late 1890s.