cover of the souvenir booklet
Artists Ball Sydney, 1924
Photo credit: State Library of NSW
Once WW1 was over, behaviour at the balls was thought by the authorities to be even more problematic. Young men were thrilled to be demobilised from the army and young women were becoming ever more independent, socially and financially. Their clothing became skimpier, the music more jazzy and alcohol more easily available. Not surprisingly, the newspapers could not publish the messy details quickly enough, thus reinforcing Sydney’s view of itself as Australia’s capital of the post-war Jazz Age. Even the City Council got involved - apparently there was a very serious discussion amongst those august councillors regarding the unseemliness of some of the costumes worn and the disorderly conduct noted!
Recently I was thrilled to find a mention of the 1920s Artists’ Balls in modern Australian literature. In Death Before Wicket by Kerry Greenwood, amateur sleuth Phryne Fisher had plans for her Sydney sojourn; a few days at the Test cricket, some sightseeing and the Artist's Ball with an up-and-coming young modernist!!
Strange Flowers said that the Chelsea Arts Club in London was founded in 1891 with an explicit mandate to be “Bohemian in character”, a marked contrast to the stuffy private clubs of the era. Among its early members were Whistler, Sargent and Augustus John. In 1910 the first Chelsea Arts Ball was held in the Royal Albert Hall where the prefabricated Great Floor provided the largest dancing space in the world. London society rose to the occasion: four thousand young people danced the night away. And from then on, until the 1950s, the club threw legendary fancy-dress balls at the Royal Albert Hall every year, to raise funds for artists' charities.
Dulcie Deamer, Sydney
I also found plenty of references to Artists’ Balls in early C20th USA. The Kokoon Arts Club, for example, was founded in 1911 by a group of young Cleveland artists. The organisation's inspiration was based largely on the bohemian spirit of the Kit Kat Klub in New York, giving members the opportunity to exercise their individual artiness. Members held classes with live models, exhibited their work and the work of others in the club's gallery spaces and went on summer sketching trips.
Cleveland's fledgling Kokoon Arts Club held its first Bal Masque in 1913 in hopes raising money. It would be the first of many. The annual costume ball became a popular, if notorious event that kept the Kokoon Arts Club in the spotlight well into the 1930s. The Bals were publicised using handbills and lavish, often daring, poster art.
The Boston Art Students Association/now the Copley Society of Art was formed to supplement the academic training of the Museum School, to assist their members in their artistic careers, to cultivate a spirit of fraternity among artists, and to promote the interests of art in the city of Boston. But mainly, I suspect, to get dressed up in fancy dress and drink alcohol. The newspapers excitedly reported the original pageants and plays that were put on, and the exciting costumed artists' festivals that were organised to enliven spirits and raise funds.
William McBride, artist and cultural activist, was responsible for the designs of the souvenir books and posters for the annual Chicago Artists and Models Ball. This was their fundraising gala, which quickly became a marquee event. Vivid images remain from the Art Crafts Guild’s 1933 Artist’s Ball, a forerunner to the South Side Community Art Centre’s Artists and Models Ball.
Could the excitement of these artists' balls be re-generated in 2013, as people have attempted to do? Of course it could be. But there were at least four aspects of the 1920s and 1930s that were both unique and essential for the balls' success:
-an urgent need to reaffirm young life after the endless slaughters of WW1;
-the excitement of the jazz age;
-the colour and modernity of the Art Deco period; and
-the growing confidence of young women socially and financially.
This era will presumably never come again to Australia. Just as I assume Prohibition, and its attendant speakeasies and gay cocktail parties, will never again return to the USA.
Chelsea Arts Club ball London, 1912. Dancers resting between brackets