It doesn’t take long in the Northeast Ohio art scene to hear about the “Cleveland School”. In some ways, it’s a straightforward classification: The Cleveland School artists were students or faculty members of the Cleveland School of Art in the first part of the twentieth century, which later became the Cleveland Institute of Art. Beyond that, the label encompasses a wide range of artistic endeavors at a period when Cleveland and the rest of the country were buzzing with activity and change. While there’s a slew of area contemporary art on display all around the city every week, chances to learn about Cleveland’s artistic output a century ago are few and far between.
The Cleveland History Center’s exhibition, Golden Age of Cleveland Art, 1900–1945, ran from December 4, 2021 to April 3, 2022.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a large collection of art created during what Clevelanders still regard as the city’s golden age. The show was the result of a collaboration between the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University.
It also linked to the Cleveland Past Masters project. This acknowledges some of Cleveland’s most well-known artists who never won the medal because their lives and careers transpired before the prize was established in 1960. When the city needs a boost, people are more likely to become civic boosters. The Cleveland Arts Prize began decades after the city’s cultural and economic apex. However the show provided some evidence that the city’s struggle to connect with, relate to, and impact culture has a long history.
The exhibition explored regional cultural identity at a time when Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the United States.
It covered a wide range of subjects, from fine art to commercial art and design; demonstring how Cleveland fitted into the national story. It aimed to show what was going on here and across the country as conservative nineteenth-century tastes persisted. Art practice developed from impressionism to modernism. Meanwhile jobs and money were drawing people away from rural areas and into cities. Many African Americans at this time migrated north during the Great Migration. Cleveland’s role as an industrial, commercial, and printing hub supported 6,000 professional artists.
Autumn Glory, a vibrant, floral impressionist landscape by Abel Warshawsky, is one of the first paintings a visitor encounters. It was far from innovative when painted in 1911 and couldn’t be more different from the remainder of the exhibit. Most features deeper colours, more drama and an exaltation of the city. But it does illustrates Warshawsky’s color theories, which he supposedly taught to a large number of eager and accomplished students. These included William Sommer and Henry Keller. However, based on the remainder of the show, they rejected his ideas.
Two years later the Armory Show debuted cubism and modernism to the American public. Henry Keller’s 1913 Portrait of Henry Gottwald seemed to mock its subject. Keller’s more conservative friend at the Cleveland School, Gottwald, had strongly rejected cubism as a new creative trend.
The Cleveland School of Art’s fine art faculty appeared to be torn between emerging movements for artists.
The city’s commercial artists were not, however. They appeared to have fully embraced the art deco aesthetic. This is evidenced by the large collection of lithographs created as posters for the Kokoon Arts Klub. Particularly by Joseph Jicha, who included words by Cleveland modernist poet Hart Crane in one poster. The painters of the Kokoon Klub were at the core of commercial art in the 1920s. It’s those art deco lithographs, with their bold lines and stylized characters, which are prominently featured in the show.
The art deco style demonstrated Cleveland’s awareness of the time’s more commercial art. However, the content of some of the other works reflected national trends. People, particularly African Americans, moved away from rural living in the early twentieth century. They moved into cities like Cleveland which offered work. A group of African American men unloading a river boat is depicted in Frank Nelson Wilcox’s 1920 watercolor Stevedores, Ohio River. Although it is a rural landscape, it recognises the mobility of people at this time. The Scarlet Creeper by Elmer Ladislaw Novotny created just fourteen years later, depicts something completely different. African-Americans moved from a rural to an urban environment within a decade. Novotny’s metropolitan ‘flaneur’ is a strikingly different type of person than the stevedores depicted in Frank Wilcox’s painting.
Art by African American artists from that period are scarce.
However the exhibition included pieces by Hughie Lee Smith and Beni Kosh, as well as two prints by Charles Sallee. Smith was arguably Cleveland’s most well-known Black artist at the time. He has pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American Art, among others. He was also a Karamu House teacher.
Several outstanding cityscapes loaned from the Union Club collection highlight Cleveland’s urbanization. The Terminal Tower was the highest skyscraper in the country outside of New York City at that time. It looms in the distance in George Gustav Adomeit’s 1928 image from the standpoint of the Erie Street Cemetery. The 1946 Tremont Cityscape by Paul Joseph Ockert depicts the pre-highway skyline of church steeples and residential rooftops. Set against a backdrop of industrial smokestacks – the majority of these structures are still standing.
Carl Gaertner’s paintings depict a gritty city, but via more intimate views. The exuberance of the subjects radiates light. This can be seen in The Popcorn Man, where a crowd is drawn to a luminous cart pushed by a vendor. It’s a bright spot in the urban landscape, similar to Gaertner’s The Pie Wagon, which is in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.
The Cleveland History Center is definitely not on many people’s radar when it comes to Cleveland art.
There’s a high possibility many missed this show. However, if you want to be considered knowledgeable about the region’s art, or if you want a crash course in the Cleveland School and its artists, the museum itself is well worth a visit.