I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Disumbrationist School of Painting
A hoax that embarrassed the art world

I saw no beauty, no form or meaning in them. Day after day I went to see and to hear contradictory explanations of what was called modern art, and finally I became disgusted, for most of the young critics were saying in effect, "What if we cannot see and understand these things! Great masters in the past were misunderstood and so we must accept and try to see, whether they please us or not."
-- Paul Jordan-Smith, The Road I came

Pavel Jerdanowitch [on the left]
is not satisfied to follow the beaten paths of art. He prefers to discover new lands, explore the heights, and peer into the abysses. His spirit delights in intoxication, and he is a prey to aesthetic agonies which are not experienced without suffering.
--Comte Chabrier, Revue du Vrai et du Beau

I tried to make myself up in imitation of Leon Trotsky, as he might have looked before a firing squad.
-- Paul Jordan-Smith, The road I came [1]

Paul Jordan-Smith [on the right]
Courtesy, Paul Jordan-Smith II.

International Pavel Jerdanowitch Painting Contest

The son of a Methodist minister, Paul Jordan-Smith graduated from a school of divinity in 1908 and became a pastor of the Universalist church. In 1910 he resigned after being charged with heresy[2] and became a writer. In 1924 he committed blasphemy against the strange gods of modern art.

He became convinced that "the modern critic in literature and art was a coward, so afraid of being out of step with his generation that he hesitated at giving honest opinion concerning art values, especially where those values were not perceptible"[1] and decided to play a joke on these art critics. He borrowed some old brushes, and on a discarded canvas slapped out a picture of a savage woman, waving a banana skin over her head. As Smith would be to banal for an independent artist, he chose Pavel Jerdanowitch for a name. He called his school of painting "The Disumbrationist" for the reason that he could not create no shadows. He applied for membership to the "No Jury" artist group in New York. After being accepted he submitted the picture under the title of "Exaltation". It was exhibited at the Waldorf Astoria Gallery in New York in 1925 and there was seen by Comte Chabrier, who wrote to Jerdanowitch from Paris asking him for a sketch of his life and for his photo. Jordan-Smith wrote that he was born in Moscow, that his parents brought him to Chicago. He was sent to study at Chicago's Art Institute, where he contracted tuberculosis. Some kind friends sent him to recover to the South Sea Islands, where he got acquainted with the savages. He returned to the United States and was living in deserts of California. Jordan-Smith also sent Chabrier the photo he made for this occasion and it appeared together with the praise of the new school of painting in the French art magazine Revue du Vrai et du Beau.

Now Jerdanowitch was invited to submit a painting to the No Jury Show in Chicago. He painted the "Aspiration" and it was exhibited at Marshall Field's Gallery in 1926. The painting was reproduced and described in glowing terms in the Chicago Evening Post. The following year he exhibited at Buffalo and was discovered by another French Journal, La Revue Moderne, which published reproductions of "Aspiration" and "Adoration". Finally, a full-page reproduction of "Aspiration" appeared in The Golden Book of Modern Art.

By 1927 Paul Jordan-Smith got tired of this joke and confessed it to Los Angeles Times[3]. This made a world-wide sensation. He wrote[1]: "I got more publicity from this little joke, which had occupied me no more than an hour a year during the three years I was engaged in it, than from all the serious work I ever did over many decades."

Some people decided that Jordan-Smith was able to pull off the hoax because he possessed an artistic genius. He writes[1]: "Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and new something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it. Even my old friend, Havelock Ellis, wrote a letter reproving me for making light of my talent."

Few years ago I wrote the True art or a fake? quiz, which asks the takers to tell True Masterpieces of Abstract Art, created by Immortal Artists, from ridiculous fakes, produced by myself. The results of the quiz are reported in another essay of this series. (I did not know at the time about Pavel Jerdanowitch: though famous in 1920s he was almost forgotten in 2000s.) I personally administered the quiz to one artist who, having made many mistakes, had to declare me a genius.

But if everyone is a genius, then no one is a genius.

Mikhail Simkin
May 1, 2006

The Seven Deadly Sins


The seven Disumbrationist paintings, produced by Rev Jordan-Smith, who christened them "The Seven Deadly Sins". Aspiration, Capitulation, and Collation are now in the UCLA Library of Special Collections [4]. The fate of the other four paintings is unknown.

Art critics praise Pavel Jerdanowitch

Cet artiste a une manière bien à lui de représenter les êtres et les choses, et il se sert de la peinture pour symboliser les sentiments. En cela, il est quelque peu littéraire et loin de se contenter du côté plastique de son art, veut, en outre, lui faire exprimer de la psychologie. Cette préoccupation semble, du reste, être le souci dominant d'une jeune et nouvelle école. Pavel Jerdanowich ne se contente pas de suivre les chemins ordinaires de l'art. Il préfère découvrir, dans ce domaine, des régions escarpées, même s'il doit entrevoir des abîmes. Son esprit se complait dans le vertige, et il est en proie a des angoisses esthétiques au, ne vont pas sans souffrance.

[This artist has distinctly individual manner in representing people and objects, and uses the brush to symbolize the sentiments. In this he is sometimes a little literary and is not satisfied with merely plastic phase of art, tries to express psychology. This preoccupation seems to be the dominant interest of a young and new school. Pavel Jerdanowich is not satisfied to follow the beaten paths of art. He prefers to discover new lands, explore the heights, and peer into the abysses. His spirit delights in intoxication, and he is a prey to aesthetic agonies which are not experienced without suffering.]

--Comte Chabrier, Revue du Vrai et du Beau, N 67, 10 Septembre 1925, p. 18

Pavel Jerdanowitch's "Aspiration" ... is a delightful jumble of Gauguin, Pop Hart and Negro minstrelsy with a lot of Jerdanowitch individuality.

--C.J. Bulliet, No-Jury Show a Glowing Surprise After so much Placid Mediocricity, Chicago Evening Post, Jan 26 1926.

Construites largement, par masses, avec le souci de marquer les oppositions davantage que la perspective exacte, les peintures de Jerdanowitch ont un caractère décoratif très intéressant, qui les apparente parfois aux peintures de Cézanne, nouvelle manière.

[Constructed on a large scale, in masses, with care to mark the contrasts rather than the exact perspective, the paintings by Jerdanowitch have a very interesting decorative character, which in some novel way connects them to the paintings of Cezanne.]

--Clément Morro, La Revue Moderne, 30 Juin 1927, pp 18-19

Chercheur, esprit inquiet, il ne peut se contenter des chemins battus. Il a fait de beaux portraits, puis des oeuvres étranges et symboliques extrêmement originales : Exaltation, Illumination, Adoration , compositions très personnelles, où l'artiste représente les choses en symbolisant - les sentiments, sous un angle oui lui est propre et qui le classe tout à fait dans les meilleurs artistes d'avant-garde par une formule en dehors de toute banalité.

[A seeker and an unquite spirit, he cannot content himself with the beaten paths. He has done some beautiful portraits, then some very original strange symbolical works: Exaltation, Illumination, Adoration, very personal compositions, where the artist represents things by symbolizing feelings from his own angle which puts him among the best artist of avant-garde by a formula excluding any banality.]

L'Art Contemporain: Livre d'Or (Éditions De La Revue du Vrai et du Beau, Paris, 1927), pp 85-86

Pavel Jerdanowitch explains the meaning of his works

In 1928 the final and complete exhibition of Jerdanowitch's paintings took place at Vose Galleries in Boston. Paul Jordan-Smith and Robert Vose prepared a leaflet describing the Disumbrationist School of Painting and its aims.

Courtesy, Vose Galleries

Besides, Paul Jordan-Smith prepared special leaflets describing the meaning of the Disumbrationist paintings. Here are some of the explanations.


It represents the breaking of the shackles of womanhood. The lady has just killed a missionary, represented by a skull. She is hungry. Women are forbidden to eat bananas on that Island. She has just taken a luscious bite and is waving the banana skin in triump and freedom[1].


The bird you see in the upper right corner is called the cosmic rooster, and is a symbol of suppressed desires; it sits upon a cross, which is of course another symbol, and at the end of the closes line is the cosmos flower with white leaves signifying immortality. The entire painting affords a marvellous illustration of the law of dynamic symmetry; everything directs the eye of the beholder towards the central symbol, so that at first we are like the washer woman (who stares at the cosmic rooster: this is why the painting is called "Aspiration") and fail to notice the hand of greed reaching for her purse[5].


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[1].


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[1].

Unsolved Puzzles

The eighth sin?

"Collation" was in the same folder as "Capitulation" in the box with Paul Jordan-Smith papers[4]. However, another folder contains descriptions of the seven disumbrationist paintings and "Collation" is not among them. Instead there is a description of "Triangulation". It is not clear what "Collation" is: the eighth Jerdanowitch painting or a forgery. For now I class it as apocriphal. The box with Paul Jordan-Smith papers[4] contains neither the original nor a reproduction of "Triangulation."

He has done some beautiful portraits?

The Golden Book of Modern Art writes about Jerdanowitch "He has done some beautiful portraits..." Review of the True and the Beautiful even reproduced one portrait, which they attributed to Jerdanowitch. It would be surprising if the Master of Disumbrationism was the author of that portrait, which is distinctly of the old school in painting. Most likely it is journalist's or printer's error.

Consulted Sources

  1. Paul Jordan-Smith, The road I came (1960) [Nine pages (220-228) of the book are about the hoax]
  2. "Hoax" artist had colorful career, Boston Post, June 28, 1931.
  3. Alma Whitaker, International art hoax bared by Los Angeles author, Los Angeles Times Aug 14, 1927.
  4. Paul Jordan-Smith Papers, UCLA Library of Special Collections, Box 42.
  5. Upton Sinclair, Money Writes (1927) [See chapter XXXVIII "Pavel Jerdanowitch"]
  6. Comte Chabrier, Revue du Vrai et du Beau, N 67, 10 Septembre 1925, p.18. [There is a copy of the issue in Ref.[4]]
  7. C.J. Bulliet, No-Jury Show a Glowing Surprise After so much Placid Mediocricity, Chicago Evening Post, Jan 26 1926. [There is a copy of the issue in Ref.[4]]
  8. Clément Morro, La Revue Moderne, 30 Juin 1927, pp 18-19 [There is a copy of the issue in Ref.[4]]
  9. L'Art Contemporain: Livre d'Or (Éditions De La Revue du Vrai et du Beau, Paris, 1927), pp 85-86
  10. Curtis MacDougall, Hoaxes (1940) [A two-page account of Disumbrationism.]
  11. Alex Boese, The Museum of Hoaxes The Museum of Hoaxes(2003) [A brief description of Disumbrationism. Here I first learned about it.]

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