Stories from the Golden Age of Cleveland Art
You don’t have to be around the Northeast Ohio art scene long to hear people bandy about the term Cleveland School. And in one sense, it’s a pretty easily defined group: The Cleveland School artists are those who studied or were on the faculty at the Cleveland School of Art—which of course became the Cleveland Institute of Art—in the first half of the twentieth century. Beyond that, though, the term covers a huge amount of artistic territory at a time when Cleveland and the nation were bursting with activity and change. And while there’s a mega dose of regional contemporary art on view all across the city every week, opportunities to get familiar with Cleveland’s artistic output of a century ago are few and far between.
The Golden Age of Cleveland Art, 1900–1945, on view at the Cleveland History Center from December 4, 2021 through April 3, 2022, offers a grand tour of Cleveland School art. It’s a rare chance to see a whole lot of art made during the time Clevelanders still look back on as the city’s glory days. The exhibition results from a partnership between the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Case Western Reserve University Department of Art History and Art, where curator Henry Adams (a regular contributor to CAN Journal) is a professor.
It is also tied to the Cleveland Arts Prize Honoring our Past Masters project, which recognizes that some of the best-known artists of Cleveland never won the prize because their lives and careers came before it was created, in 1960. People tend to become civic boosters when the city needs a boost. It might be entirely coincidental that The Cleveland Arts Prize—Cleveland’s own recognition of the city’s great cultural contributors—began decades after its cultural and economic zenith, but the show does provide some evidence that the city’s struggle to connect, relate to, and influence culture at large has a long history.
The exhibition surveys regional cultural identity when Cleveland was, by population, the sixth-largest city in the United States. It shows enormous range, from fine art to commercial art and design. It also shows, in part through content, how Cleveland fit into the national story. Individual works and juxtapositions tell stories of what was happening here and across the nation as conservative, nineteenth-century tastes lingered while art practice evolved from impressionism to modernism, as jobs and money drew people away from rural places and into cities, as African Americans came north in the Great Migration. According to Adams, Cleveland’s role as an industrial, commercial, and printing center supported some 6,000 professional artists. That’s a whole lot of productivity.
One of the first works a visitor sees is Abel Warshawsky’s colorful, floral, impressionist landscape Autumn Glory. Painted in 1911, it was far from groundbreaking—something he learned while traveling in Paris—and it couldn’t be more different from the rest of the exhibit, which has darker hues, more drama, commerce, and celebration of the city. But it also represents ideas about color that Warshawsky taught, apparently to lots of enthusiastic and subsequently successful students, including William Sommer and Henry Keller. Judging from the rest of the exhibit, though, they considered his ideas and rejected them.
Just two years after that, and in the same year as the Armory Show introduced cubism and modernism to US audiences, Henry Keller’s Cubist Portrait of Henry Gottwald from 1913 seems to poke fun at its subject: Gottwald was Keller’s more conservative colleague at the Cleveland School, and had vehemently opposed cubism as a new direction for art, which can be seen as emblematic of the way Cleveland has struggled with its artistic and cultural position: Are we early adopters, or not so much? Do we have our own style, and is it original, and does it matter beyond these seven or so counties, or do we jump on the cutting edge we see in other places? These questions are just as relevant in the present.
If the fine art faculty at the Cleveland School seemed torn over new trends, the commercial artists of Cleveland were not. They seem to have thoroughly embraced art deco style, as is evident in a great collection of lithographs made as posters for the Kokoon Klub Bal Masques, especially by Joseph Jicha, who in one poster published lines by the seminal Cleveland modernist poet Hart Crane. Commercial art was huge business here in the 1920s, and the artists of the Kokoon Klub were at the heart of it, and those art deco lithos, with their hard lines and stylized figures, are well represented in the show.
If art deco style showed Cleveland to be in touch with the more commercial art of the times, it was the content in some of the other works that reflected national trends. In the early twentieth century, people, including African Americans, were drawn away from the rural life and toward cities like Cleveland—industrial centers offering jobs. Frank Nelson Wilcox’s 1920 watercolor Stevedores, Ohio River portrays a group of African American men unloading a river boat. This was the time of the Great Migration. It’s a rural scene, but it acknowledges that movement of people. Around a corner, and painted just fourteen years later, Elmer Ladislaw Novotny’s The Scarlet Creeper, a controversial character illustration for a controversial novel, portrays something very different. “In a decade,” Adams writes, “African-Americans were transformed from a rural to an urban environment. What can’t be doubted is that the urban ‘flaneur’ who Novotny portrays is an amazingly different sort of person than the stevedores of Frank Wilcox’s painting.”
Paintings by African American artists from that era are somewhat rare, but works of Hughie Lee Smith and Beni Kosh are presented in the show, and two prints by Charles Sallee are reproduced in the catalogue. Smith, probably the most acclaimed Black artist from Cleveland, certainly from that time, has works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Museum of American Art, among others. He was also a teacher at Karamu House. The fact that Karamu for years had a thriving visual art program is reason for a whole exhibit unto itself. If Cleveland art collectors and dealers are seeking the broader relevance of works made here, artists associated with what remains “the oldest producing African American theatre in the nation” might be a good place to look.
Underscoring the urbanization of Cleveland are several remarkable cityscapes on loan from the collection of the Union Club. George Gustav Adomeit’s 1928 view from the Erie Street Cemetery shows the Terminal Tower, looming in the near distance, completed just a year earlier, then the tallest building in the country outside of New York City. Paul Joseph Ockert’s 1946 Tremont Cityscape shows the pre-highway skyline of church steeples and residential rooftops against a backdrop of industrial smokestacks. Most of these buildings still stand. Paintings by Carl Gaertner show the gritty city, but more intimate views, where the excitement of the moment radiates light, as in The Popcorn Man, wherein a people are drawn to the luminous cart pushed by a vendor—a bright spot in the urban landscape, very much like Gaertner’s The Pie Wagon, which is in the collection (and even occasionally on view) at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Cleveland History Center is probably not much on the radar of most denizens of the Cleveland art scene, and so there’s a good chance many have so far missed this exhibition. But if you want to consider yourself informed about the region’s art, if you want a crash course in the Cleveland School, it’s not to be missed.
Honoring Our Past Masters: The Golden Age of Cleveland Art, 1900–1945, December 4, 2021–April 4, 2022 at the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society
Related: Cleveland Institute of Art associate professor David C. Hart gives an illustrated talk on Hughie Lee-Smith (1915–1999), June 7 as part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Lunchtime Lecture series.