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Bohemia in Cleveland: The Kokoon Arts Club

You receive an invitation in the mail. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before: a masquerade of Modernist spirits, sliding down on lighting-bolts to a sacred mountain. “13th Descent,” it announces: “Deity Agni • Son of Fire • With the Spirit of Carnival • Through Myriad Cycles of Color • Masonic Hall • February 5, 1926.”

It’s a blank invitation: an invitation to write in your own name. It is meant for you. Yes? You are now an initiate. Welcome to the grandest event of the strangest society ever to exist in Cleveland.

358. Kokoon Arts Club. 1926.
Joseph W. Jicha
24 3/8 x 33 3/4 in./62 x 86 cm
Est: $1,700-$2,000.

In the boom years after World War I, Cleveland was the heart of America’s lithography trade. Artists, lithographers, and draftsmen from Germany and Eastern Europe had poured into the city. They, in turn, were supplying a demand for labor created by Hollywood’s roaring new silent film industry.

In truth, though, the work was less exciting than it sounded. The movies were often throwaways; the commissions were cliché; standards were mediocre.

By contrast, Cleveland’s lithographers had been educated in the European artistic tradition. Where they’d grown up –literally in Bohemia, for some of them – art was life; Impressionism had become Pointillism had become Cubism, and Cubism was steaming ahead into Art Deco.

Cleveland’s artists were bored. Luckily, they had Carl Moellman, a Cincinnati native who’d gone to New York to make his name in the lithography trade, and returned to the Midwest. Inspired by New York’s Kit Kat Club, of which he was a member, he joined forces with two other Cleveland lithographers in 1913, to found the Kokoon, with a mission to promote Modernism. This was the latest affront to traditionalists in Cleveland’s artistic community; that same year, the conservative Cleveland Society of Artists was founded, and the two arts societies would be implacable rivals for decades.

The Kokoon’s annual gala event, the Bal Masque, would be a further affront to the CSA’s traditionalists – plus a scandal to Cleveland high society and an annual thorn in the side of the local police.

357. Midas / Crystal Slipper Ballroom. 1927.
Joseph W. Jicha
25 x 37 3/4 in./63.6 x 96 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700. reports “a woman wearing only a hatbox suspended below her waist, a couple ‘clothed’ in body paint.” To get in, you had to get down with the year’s theme, and seriously. No rented costumes: only adornments strictly interpreting the year’s theme. Cleveland Magazine noted, “Sane people were not welcome. Maurice Cornell made sure of that. Instead, she granted permission to only fairies and goblins who ‘knew no law save that of frolic.’ Rubberneckers at the Hotel Cleveland described the guests as ‘a strange troupe of revelers dressed in fashion of all the known tribes of the earth, and some believed to have only existed on Mars, if at all.’”

Once inside, you’d be engulfed in a throng of decadence. “The debauched event began with a big reveal: a butterfly — really a dancer — who emerged from a cocoon in the middle of the ballroom. Nude female dancers shimmied amid wall-length murals and cloth-covered chandeliers that cast the room in kaleidoscopic color.”

Among the revelers danced our artist, Joseph W. Jicha (1901-1960). He illustrated many of the invites for the Kokoon Arts Club during the 1920s, following his art studies in Cleveland. Later, his great Art Deco landscapes and figure studies were included in major exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, and venues in New York, Philadelphia and Texas.

These masked balls, as over-the-top as they were, protected a much more important goal: an education in Modernism and a society for the avant-garde. “One of the most important things about the Kokoon club was that they represented the outsiders who organized against rigid conformity,” said Elizabeth Travis Dreyfuss, a daughter of one member. “As outsiders they were supportive of each other, and they created a place to exhibit their work.”

The Kokoon Arts Club lasted until 1946, when it became a victim of insurmountable debts from the Great Depression.

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