The front page headline of the August 14, 1927, Los Angeles Times read INTERNATIONAL ART HOAX BARED BY LOS ANGELES AUTHOR. The story revealed that the modern art movement known as “Disumbrationism” was a complete fraud—a “remarkable revenge put over on Futurist critics.” (Above, one of that faux-movement’s masterworks: Pavel Jerdanowitch’s Illumination, c. 1926.)
Disumbrationism probably doesn’t ring a bell, and you may be surprised that Futurism, subject of a current Guggenheim NY show, was ever front-page news in Los Angeles. The story of the Disumbrationism hoax deserves to be better known than it is. It offers a window onto the 1920s American public’s view of modern art—mainly, as a con game.
Paul Jordan Smith was an L.A. Times journalist and author. His wife, Sarah Bixby Smith, was an amateur painter whose work was rejected for a exhibition at Claremont. The judges faulted it for being too conservative. This provoked her husband, who had no artistic training, to paint “a weird futuristic-cum-impressionist-cum-kindergarten canvas in riotous color.”
It wasn’t what we’d now call futurist(ic). Inspired by Gauguin, the painting presents a Polynesian woman holding a banana, “primitive” in drawing and uncomfortable stereotype. The Times account says that Smith initially used the painting as a firescreen. Then he decided to enter the painting in an exhibition of “independents” being held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel in spring 1925. He submitted under the name “Pavel Jerdanowitch” and titled the painting “Exaltation.” As this was a selling exhibition, he put “an impossible price on it… he did not want to trap any innocent buyer.”
The Russian pseudonym might allude to Malevich, Kandinsky, and Rodchenko, already prominent modernists. But the Times article repeatedly mentions Futurism. That Italian movement was well known in the English-speaking world via poet-theorist Filippo Marinetti, a cluster bomb of sound bites who traveled to London several times. Futurism began as poetry slam. It contained the kernel of Dada and Fluxus and post-modern put-on. Marinetti aptly defined Futurism as “the desire to be heckled.”
Only later did Futurism become the label for the machine-age painting and sculpture that rates a cul-de-sac in MoMA’s floor plan and (in the second half of the Guggenheim exhibition) became the official fascist brand of art deco.
Because of Marinetti, Anglo-American reactions to modern art were often framed as reactions to Futurism. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase appropriated the Futurist painting style of its time.
Smith got a letter from a French journal, the Revue du Vrai et du Beau (“Review of the True and the Beautiful”!) about his femme avec banane. He replied with a moody photo himself as “Jerdanowitch” (left) and a bogus biography, claiming to have been born in Moscow and to have contracted tuberculosis, forcing moves to the South Seas and the California desert. The Revue bought this story hook, line, and sinker. It praised Jerdanowitch’s art in two issues.
In 1926 Smith submitted another painting to an unjuried show held at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago. Called Aspiration, it was not remotely Futurist or avant-garde, though its subject and flatness resembled the American folk art that was beginning to be championed by modernist critics. The Chicago Evening Post’s art critic, Lena McCauley, called Aspiration a “delightful jumble of Gauguin, Pop Hart and negro minstrelsy with a lot of Jerdanowitch individuality.”
That last bit implies that McCauley was well acquainted with the Jerdanowitch oeuvre. She omits to mention that that oeuvre consisted of two exhibited pictures.
Well, you get the idea. Smith sent two more pictures to the Waldorf in 1927. This time a critic of La Revue Moderne wrote that “the post-impressionists are among the spiritual masters of our painters, notably Gauguin, who, like Jerdanowitch, got most of his impressions from the islands of the Pacific.… We note that Jerdanowitch is an admirer of Goya, whom he often resembles in expressive force, in dramatic instinct and satirical bitterness.”
In August 1927, Smith/Jerdanowitch came clean, giving the L.A. Times the scoop.
What does Smith’s practical joke prove? Does it prove anything?
Smith framed his hoax as a demonstration of “the emperor has no clothes.” That was and is the rallying cry of those who feel the avant garde is a scam. The success of Smith’s prank needs to be qualified. He didn’t “fool” that many critics, and the ones he did punk were pretty low on the food chain.
That granted, some Jerdanowitch supporters backpedaled amusingly after the exposure. One was Havelock Ellis, the British sex researcher, who knew Smith and thought he knew art. He argued that Smith was talented and that, in spite of his intention to create bad art, he created good art.
Smith was enabled by no-jury exhibitions—as was Duchamp, eight years earlier, with his Fountain. Indeed Smith’s hoax bears some comparison to Duchamp’s notorious urinal. Duchamp created “bad” art to shock not only the bourgeoisie but the art establishment. Smith’s goal was, in a sense, more subversive, creating bad art to please the highbrow critics and make them look ridiculous.
Does this mean that art is a hopeless mire and there’s no way of telling what’s good and what’s bad? Smith probably felt that way, and his opinion has more overlap with Marinetti’s than he might have realized. (“We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind,” vows the Futurist Manifesto.)
I don’t think that conclusion follows from Smith’s prank, and maybe it’s worth saying why.
What an artist does is to create a body of work in which individual works acquire meaning. If you’ve never seen a Cindy Sherman before, you might say, “My 5-year-old can do that (take a funny selfie)!” You have to look at how one Sherman work relates to others, and how she develops themes over her career, and how her work fits into the whole fabric of art history.
A corollary is that a critic shouldn’t shower praise on an artist based on one or two works. Maybe that ought to be obvious. Anyway, Jerdanowitch’s fluffers deserve the dunce cap.
Smith’s hoax has been forgotten by the art world, or maybe it never really entered its consciousness. I think he made two valid points. One is that art critics can be lemmings, wanting to go along with everyone else and rarely challenging the tone of the room. This is in fact human nature, applying to art critics and everyone else.
Smith also showed how artists’ statements are powerless to establish artistic merit. As a newspaperman, Smith was able to talk a good game about bad art. You shouldn’t try to convince yourself, or anyone else, of an artist’s merit based on what that artist said. The art should do the convincing.
Smith’s son was a UCLA research librarian who donated most of hoax paintings to the Charles E. Young Research Library. Untraced however is the painting that started it all, of the woman with the banana. It’s ironic that Smith singled out Gauguin as the epitome of all that was mystifying and fraudulent about modern art. Today there are people who rail against contemporary art—but they’re got a refrigerator magnet of a Gauguin.
If you want more, I’ll be discussing the Disumbrationism hoax in a segment on the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries of the Museum” tonight at 9 PM.
(Above, more unfamiliar Futurism from the Guggenheim show: Fortunato Depero’s Little Black and White Devils, Dance of Devils, 1922-3. It’s a tapestry!)