Under the pseudonym Pavel Jerdanowitch (a Cyrillic derivation of Paul Jordan), Jordan-Smith founded the Disumbrationist School of Art. (The movement takes its name from the word “umbrage,” meaning shadows or shade. The added “dis” denotes Jordan-Smith’s inability to render them.) Armed with his new, exotic name and an absurdly high asking price, Jordan-Smith entered the painting (which he later renamed Exaltation
) in the 1925 Waldorf Astoria exhibition staged by the Society of Independent Artists—an association founded by
and Duchamp, alongside the art patron Walter Conrad Arensberg.
In short order, the Parisian critic Le Comte Chabrier reached out to Jordan-Smith on behalf of his magazine Revue du Vrai et du Beau
, applauding Exaltation
and eagerly inquiring about Jerdanowitch’s vision. Jordan-Smith replied with an elaborate backstory: Born in Moscow, Jerdanowitch emigrated to Chicago at 10 years old before contracting tuberculosis and relocating to the more favorable climates of Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and finally, Southern California. Jerdanowitch was promptly featured
in the journal’s September issue alongside his portrait, styled “in imitation of Leon Trotsky, as he might have looked before a firing squad.”
Disumbrationism caught on as word spread throughout the Western art world. Jerdanowitch was invited to show at a No-Jury Society exhibition in Chicago, for which Jordan-Smith created new work. Aspiration
(previously named Perspiration
), a technicolor portrayal of a woman washing clothes, was praised
as “a delightful jumble of
and Negro minstrelsy, with a lot of Jerdanowitch individuality” by the Chicago Evening Post
in January 1926. The painting appeared again later that year in the French art book L’Art Contemporain: Livre D’Or
By 1927, Jordan-Smith was weary from his pranks. His pointed confession landed the front page of the Los Angeles Times, where he would later serve as literary editor from 1933 until 1957. “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,” he admitted in his autobiography. By that time, Jordan-Smith had written four books, including The Soul of Woman: An Interpretation of the Philosophy of Feminism (1916) and A Key to the Ulysses of James Joyce (1927).
Jerdanowitch made a brief reappearance in 1928 with one final exhibition at Vose Galleries in Boston, complete with farcical explanations of each Disumbrationist painting. Jordan-Smith painted seven artworks in total, which he referred to as “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Five paintings are now housed in the UCLA Library of Special Collections. The whereabouts of the others are unknown.
Whether Disumbrationism was thoroughly a hoax remains disputable. Jordan-Smith may have revealed the modern art critic’s gullibility, but perhaps he possessed a natural penchant for painting as successful outsider artists do. Jordan-Smith’s hijinks didn’t stray far from the masterly modernists whom he mocked; Duchamp and his band of Dada provocateurs likewise challenged creative fetters with conceptual “anti-art” forged with derision. As Dada co-founder
: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” Disumbrationism was undoubtedly born from the same sentiment.