A damned talented elephant


In Pamela Hansford-Johnson’s Cork St Next To The Hatters a young man goes to a play called Good For A Giggle, which involves three psychopathic siblings with a deaf and dumb wheelchair-bound mother who is beaten to death by their lesbian lodger:

 ….the audience, which had a large admixture of clergymen and elderly ladies, was laughing obediently away with a puzzled expression on its collective face.

He wonders if it would be possible to write a play so disgusting that it could never be staged.

You guessed it, his play is a hit.

I thought of him when I read about Pavel Jerdanowitch, an avant-garde Russian artist who invented the school of Disumbrationism in 1924. In reality he was an American literary scholar called Paul Jordan-Smith, propelled by a dyspeptic rage at the art of Picasso, Duchamp and Hopper, works in which he saw “nothing but confusion and ugliness, bare of either reality or romance.” He was particularly miffed that his own wife’s realist landscapes and portraits were dissed as “old school”.  Modern critics, he thought, were cowards too frightened to say what they really thought.

Jordan-Smith set out to paint as clumsily and derivatively as he could, aping what he saw as modernist style and slapping on arbitrary titles like Yes, We have No Bananas.  And he attracted a lot of interest and praise:

Pavel Jerdanowitch 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.

Le Comte Chabrier, Revue du Vrai et du Beau

Even when he confessed to the hoax, people insisted that he just didn’t recognise his own artistic talent, or that his lack of training and freedom from artistic ego had liberated a naïve genius. Who knows? Five of his seven paintings are still on display in the UCLA Library of Special Collections, so if you live in that part of the world you can make up your own mind.


And speaking of naïve genius, I then came across a story about an elephant, Siri, whose keeper sent her drawings to William de Kooning. “That’s a damned talented elephant,” said de Kooning. I’m a great fan of elephants so maybe I’m prejudiced, but they look pretty good to me too. I’m voting for Siri.

To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation Of The Art Of Elephants (David Gucwa and James Ehrman).









8 thoughts on “A damned talented elephant

  1. Funny you should mention Pamela Hansford-Johnson in the context of this book as her name has cropped up a few times recently, particular in relation to her poor opinion of one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Taylor. Apparently the atmosphere between the two of them was quite frosty! Are you a PH-J fan?

      1. It’s funny how our responses to certain books or authors can change over time, both positively and negatively… No, I’m not familiar with Pamela Branch. I’ll have to look her up!

  2. I had to look up the word disumbrationism. It seems to me it’s all about marketing and the hoax is often used- whatever sells even a naked emperor.

  3. Your first item, particularly, reminded me of the plot of Mel Brooks’ clever film ‘The Producers’ (1967) in which, for their own fraudulent purposes, the eponymous individuals set out to stage the most offensive musical they could imagine, all about the Third Reich, only for it to become a hit.

    Extraordinary that this was only 22 years after the end of the war; it’s now over half a century later and it’s as if the world is fighting the same resurgent ideology all over again.

    1. Something similar has happened with the Trump effect – it’s all been so gross that the capacity for outrage is paralysed. Not only do people just shrug off whatever he does, but they even think, “oh, he’s not so bad.”

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