Remembering The Society of American Fakirs, 1891-1914

Catalogue of the Society of American Fakirs, 14th Annual Spill, 1905. Gift of D. Frederick Baker from the Baker/Pisano American Art History Research Collection.

In this era of fake news, deepfakes, and the blurring of truth and fiction, it may come as a surprise to learn about a time when art caricatures or “fakes” were popular and formed an integral part of American art school education.  From 1891-1914, students attending the Art Students League in New York held annual exhibitions of “fake” art that parodied the work done by their instructors and other important artists.  These creative students called themselves The Society of American Fakirs.  Both male and female students participated in the Fakir exhibitions, including Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe, who attended the Art Students League from 1907-08.  Most of artists whose works were spoofed were members of the Society of American Artists or the National Academy of Design, for example William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Irving Wiles, and Cecilia Beaux, among many others.

This exhibit brings together a Society of American Fakirs painting by Andrew Thomas Schwartz called “Oh!-Shaw/Mr. Niggle” (1897) owned by the Chazen Museum of Art and seven Fakir exhibition catalogs that are part of the Kohler Art Library.  The Fakir painting is an art caricature of Charles Naegele’s portrait of Samuel T. Shaw that is housed in the New York Historical Society.  Schwartz pokes fun at the Naegele academic work by elongating Shaw’s face and using knotholes to depict the eyes in his witty version.  The humorous title reveals the playful punning associated with most Fakir works which often contained unexpected materials such as lobster claws, banana peels, old shoes, and even dried fish to skewer the original works of art.  The zany Fakir catalogs were also done in jest and contain cartoons and illustrations, word games, inside jokes, tongue-twisters, poems, and jingles.  The point of all this merriment was to raise money for student scholarships through the sale of Fakir art work, catalogs, and tickets to related events.

These rare works of art and art documentation were generously donated by collector and art historian D. Frederick Baker.  Thanks to the Chazen Museum of Art for their generous loan of the Fakir painting for inclusion in this exhibit.

Curated by Lyn Korenic, Director, Kohler Art Library
December 19, 2019 – February 18, 2020