New book on Kokoon Klub tells history of modern art’s emergence in Cleveland

At times shocking, fun and outrageous, a group of local artists who formed the Kokoon Klub and started hosting Bal Masques in 1911 did more than bring out vice squads or orders from Cleveland mayors to cancel one of the hottest events in the city. They introduced modern art to Cleveland.

The Bal Masques dances fueled a feverish rage for the new art’s vibrant colors and bold designs in a city painted industrial gray and brown from its smoke-spewing chimneys, said Henry Adams, Case Western Reserve University professor of art history and author of Out of the Kokoon, with a section by Lawrence Waldman on “The Commercial Arts in Cleveland, 1908-1938.”

The book’s arrival coincides with the Cleveland Public Library’s exhibit “Out of the Kokoon: Cleveland’s Festival of Modern Art and Dance, 1911-1938,” which is curated by Waldman and celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Klub.

On display are works from the Cleveland Public Library’s Fine Arts and Special Collections. The exhibit, presented in partnership with the Cleveland Artists Foundation, runs through Dec. 31 and is free and open to the public in the Main Library’s third floor.

Some of the most sought-after invitations from 1911 to 1938 were to the Kokoon Klub’s annual Bal Masques event with its artistic performance, swathed in artful and lavish decorations under which guests danced in original and exotic costumes. Some guests arrived only powdered in talc, while others donned elaborately exotic costumes, and others mimicked the original Leon Bakst designs for the Ballet Russes, a popular Parisian dance company that stopped in Cleveland on its U.S. tour and advanced modern art and fashion in Paris.

The Klubbers held workshops to draw and design, and librarians culled the library’s resources for costume inspirations to offer members and the public.

Behind the Bal Masques was a group of artists working for Cleveland’s burgeoning printing industry that created billions of movie posters rapidly rolling off the presses at places like Otis and Morgan Lithograph Companies.

Adams said Cleveland-produced posters were delivered to movie houses throughout the country, making it the second-largest hub for printing outside of New York City. It also became the first home to TIME and Life magazines.

The print business brought hundreds of artists to the city, and some of those individuals became the founding members of the Kokoon Klub, based on the idea of a butterfly released from its cocoon.

Today the Kokoon Klub has faded from much of Cleveland’s memory, but the book and exhibit revive this era of a colorful and vibrant city released from its former industrial self.

This emergence was fun, yet shocking, according to Adams.

He said key Klubbers “pumped color and life into the work that local painters exhibited at Cleveland art galleries” and what was the May Show at a newly opened Cleveland Museum of Art.

Two artists led this movement: Carl Moellmann and William Sommer, whom the Otis Lithograph Co. raided from the J. Ottman Lithographic Company in New York.

These two artists initiated the Kokoon Klub’s first meeting in 1911 and modeled it after New York’s Kit Kat Club, a place for writers and artists to mingle and exchange ideas.

“It stood for originality, self-expression and freedom of thought,” Adams wrote. Originality in technique and expression was encouraged.

In Cleveland, other artists joined Moellmann and Sommer: Henry Keller, August Biehle, Joseph Garrmone, Abel Warshawsky and William Zorach.

This artistic energy gave birth to the signature annual celebration that came to be known as Bal Masques, which began in 1911 and ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Efforts to revive the event after World War II failed as members aged and modern art lost its shiny new luster with its acceptance.

Now long gone from Cleveland’s social scene, the metamorphosis of an industrial city into a city alive with colorful arts is a legacy left by the artists that emerged from the Kokoon Klub.