Los Angeles resident Paul Jordan Smith was, by profession, a novelist (author of Nomad
and Cables of Cobweb
) and a Latin scholar. But in 1924, having never painted before, he picked up a brush and drew a picture of a South Seas islander holding a banana over her head. So began his double identity as brooding Russian artist Pavel Jordanowitch.
(left) Paul Jordan Smith; (right) Smith as Pavel Jerdanowitch
In the guise of Jerdanowitch, Smith entered paintings in exhibitions throughout the country. They were singled out for praise by critics, and Jerdanowitch's reputation was fast-growing, until Smith revealed his deception in 1927. He explained that he perpetrated the hoax "just to prove most art critics didn't know what they were talking about."
Exaltation: The Launching of Jerdanowitch's Career
Smith's wife, Sarah Bixby Smith, was an amateur painter. In 1924 she showed some works in a local exhibition, but they were panned by critics, who dismissed them as "distinctly of the old school."
This annoyed Smith and got him thinking about what he perceived to be an unfortunate fad among art critics for anything modern or abstract in style. But when his wife then tried to update her style to make it more modernistic, Smith decided to take matters into his own hands. He later wrote:
I asked for paint and canvas and said I'd do a real modern — I'd never tried to paint anything in my life. Given the oldest tubes of red and green paint and a worn brush I took up a defective canvas and in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana. I labeled it 'Yes We Have No Bananas,' took it to the dinner table for the delight or disgust of the family, and thought that was the end of the matter.
Exaltation, aka Yes We Have No Bananas
For a while the painting sat in his living room, doubling as a fire screen. But when it attracted the praise of a visitor, who thought it looked like a work by Gauguin, Smith decided to see if it could fool real art critics.
In 1925, Smith entered the banana picture in New York's Exhibition of the Independents at the Waldorf-Astoria. He renamed it 'Exaltation,' put a high price-tag on it (just to make sure no one would buy it), and listed it as the work of a Russian artist, Pavel Jerdanowitch, which was a play on Paul Jordan. He figured that an exotic name should make him a bigger hit with critics.
To Smith's amusement, critics promptly swallowed the bait. He soon received a letter from a French art journal, the Revue du Vrai et du Beau
(Review of the True and the Beautiful), praising the work and asking whether Jerdanowitch could supply more biographical information about himself, as well as an interpretation of the painting.
Smith happily obliged. He wrote back that Jerdanowitch had been born in Moscow, but came to America at 10 years of age with his family and settled in Chicago. But suffering from tuberculosis, he later moved to the South Sea Islands, before relocating to Southern California. As a final flourish, Smith described Jerdanowitch as the founder of the Disumbrationist school of art. Smith even sent along a photograph of himself as Jerdanowitch, with his hair slicked back in order to create an air of brooding intensity.
As for the painting, Smith wrote that it represented the breaking of the shackles of womanhood. The woman, he said, had just killed a missionary (if you look closely you can see the missionary's skull sitting on a pole behind her). In addition, she had just taken a bite of a banana, even though women were forbidden to eat bananas on her island. She was waving the banana above her head to represent her new-found freedom.
Smith's biographical information about Jerdanowitch, along with the interpretation of the painting, appeared in the next issue of the Revue du Vrai et du Beau, accompanied by appreciated remarks from critics. And so Panel Jerdanowitch was born.
Aspiration: Jerdanowitch's Reputation Grows
Based on the positive reviews of his first painting, Jordanowitch was asked to exhibit the next year, at Marshall Field's No-Jury Exhibition in Chicago. Smith decided to oblige and expanded Jerdanowitch's oeuvre. He prepared a work titled 'Aspiration,' that was a colorful piece showing a woman gazing up at a rooster on a post.
This work was selected for reproduction in the January 26, 1926 issue of Chicago's Art World
, and Lena McCauley, art critic for the Chicago Evening Post
, praised the piece as a "delightful jumble of Gauguin, Pop Hart and negro minstrelsy with a lot of Jerdanowitch individuality."
Next, Smith prepared two more works, 'Illumination' and 'Adoration,' that he exhibited again at the New York Waldorf-Astoria. About 'Illumination,' Smith (as Jerdanowitch) wrote: "It is midnight and the drunken man stumbles home, anticipating a storm from his indignant wife; he sees her eyes and the lightning of her wrath. It is conscience at work."
Again, these works were highly praised by critics. La Revue Moderne
described them as "inspirational."
In 1927, Smith decided he had proven his point and that it was time to pull the veil off of Pavel Jerdanowitch. He made a full confession to Los Angeles Times writer Alma Whitaker, and the story of the hoax broke on the front page of the LA Times on August 14, 1927.
In his confession, Smith explained that he had hoped to show that much of the art currently in fashion was "poppycock" promoted by critics who knew very little about art. He derisively described these critics as "'fraidy cats" and poseurs.
The Jerdanowitch Sequel and Smith's Subsequent Career
Jerdanowitch, it turned out, wasn't entirely dead. In 1931, Boston's Robert C. Vose Gallery (with Smith's cooperation) staged an exhibition of Jerdanowitch's work. It included a new work, 'Gination,' of which Jerdanowitch wrote:
"It depicts the appalling effects of alcohol on Hollywood women of the studios. It is a moral picture. Note the look of corruption on the lady's skin. Everything is unbalanced. While good gin might not have just that effect, boulevard gin brings it about in short time. The picture is painted in bold strokes and with a sure hand. I believe it is the most powerful of my works."
Smith also wrote a catalog to accompany the paintings in which he wrote:
"To those who realize that real art depicts not what we see but what we feel, hear, and smell, these soul revealing creations will be sources of ecstatic, moronic rapture."
However, this time around, the paintings generated only lukewarm reviews. Though Smith claimed that someone did offer him $1500 for one of them. After the exhibition, the gallery revealed the real story behind the paintings.
Smith then declared that Jerdanowitch was finally fully dead, and that the "flossy writers" on art no longer needed to fear he would "wield brush and palette for their ultimate dismay."
In 1933, Smith began writing a column for the L.A. Times, which he continued until his retirement in 1957. He was also known as a leading authority on the writings of the 17th century author Robert Burton.
Smith died in 1971, at the age of 86.
Links and References
- Disumbrationist School of Painting: A hoax that embarrassed the art world. ecclesiastes911.net.
- MacDougall, Curtis (1958). Hoaxes, 2nd ed.: 267-268.
- "Pastor Smith has a joke on modern art" (Jan 27, 1931). Chicago Daily Tribune: 1.
- Sherman, Gene (Nov 22, 1951). "Daubs that fooled critics recalled." Los Angeles Times: 36.
- Whitaker, Alma (Aug 14, 1927). "International art hoax bared by Los Angeles author." Los Angeles Times: B1.