By Peggy Turbett
Cleveland was percolating! Fueled by the taconite of Minnesota and the coal of Pennsylvania, the port city and railroad hub on Lake Erie bustled at the turn of the 20th Century, turning out steel, refining oil and teeming with supporting industries. Its people and artistic culture flourished, as well.
Between 1900 and 1930, when the Terminal Tower was completed, Cleveland more than doubled in population to 900,000, the fifth largest city in America. In this booming environment, according to the Cleveland History Center, the city became a powerhouse of painting, sculpture, ceramics, poster art, fashion and industrial design.
“It was the nation’s leader in printing and magazine distribution, the home of Time, Fortune, and Life magazine,” said Dr. Henry Adams, art historian and professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University. “At its peak, Cleveland supported a community of about six thousand professional artists, and during this period it also created a major art school and a major art museum.”
In this framework comes “Honoring Our Past Masters: The Golden Age of Cleveland Art –1900-1945,” an exhibit of Cleveland Art staged in partnership with CWRU, the Western Reserve Historical Society with Experience Design Director Dennis Barrie, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. With pieces drawn from several private collections, the show brings together work not seen by the general public in years.
Curated by Adams, the exceptional collection of 87 pieces represents work from the internationally famous to the relatively obscure. Viktor Schreckengost’s renowned Art Deco masterpiece, “Jazz Bowl,” stands prominently near the entrance. But it’s the industrial designer’s bronze bust “Jeddu, Mangbetu Queen” that commands attention from the central floor. This sleek figure, based on a 1922 photograph, draws visitors’ attention to other treasures, such as Frank Wilcox’s watercolor, “Stevedores, Ohio River,” and William Sommer’s pivotal oil painting, “Adam and Eve.” Displayed deep into the room, Sommer’s 1915 avant-garde view of the iconic couple, set amid the lush garden and brilliant hues of the sun, helped bring the modernist movement to the more traditional Cleveland School of the time. “This brought it all to life. Cleveland became an important center for modernist art in America,” said noted art dealer Michael Wolf of WOLFS gallery, viewing the work at the opening in December. (Specializing in Cleveland School artwork for decades, WOLFS is an important lender to the exhibition.)
Boundaries were also breached by the area’s more adventurous commercial artists, as Adams explained during his remarks at the exhibit’s opening.
“The golden age of Cleveland art started in 1907, when William Sommer and Carl Moellman were lured to Cleveland to work for Otis Lithograph, which had just signed a contract to produce movie posters nationwide and worldwide,” he said. “At its peak Otis published more than a million posters a week to about a billion every two years. At this point, while photography exists, movie posters were drawn by hand and an establishment such as Otis Lithograph employed about two hundred skilled draftsmen.”
One wall of the exhibit is devoted to posters and watercolors of the Kakoon Arts Club, an artists’ group started by Sommer and Moellmen as a bohemian gathering place for commercial artists to socialize and create work unconstrained by mainstream conventions. Their annual fundraising “Bals Masques,” replete with elaborate and outlandish costuming, fascinated and appalled Cleveland society for three decades.
Countering the ethereal, Paul Joseph Ockert’s oil painting, “Tremont Cityscape,” anchors a nearby wall. Having attended East High School and Adelbert College (CWRU) before establishing a career as an artist and architect, Ockert gives an insider’s sense of place in his depiction of the intense density of Cleveland nearing its peak population in 1947. In his view, dark smoke billows from factory stacks in the background of Tremont, a neighborhood packed with single homes and apartments, colorful tree boughs, and church steeples.
Clearly there is more to view than can be described here or fully studied in an afternoon. Adams encouraged the audience to come back in different lights, in different moods and at different times of day. “I think these paintings will grow on you,” he said. “I think that every single work of art here is worth looking at and thinking about carefully.”
“The Golden Age of Cleveland” exhibit is a component of the year-long “Past Masters” project, conceived by Dennis Dooley to honor locale creative leaders whose work predates the establishment of the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1960.