In 1964 the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avantgarde painters.
Among the works of these promising artists from Italy, Austria, Denmark, England and Sweden, were also four abstract paintings by the french Pierre Brassau. His name was completely unknown to the art scene, but his talents looked undisputable: this young man, although still a beginner, really seemed qualified to become the next Jackson Pollock — so much so that since the opening, his paintings stole the attention from all other featured works.
Journalists and art critics were almost unanimous in considering Pierre Brassau the true revelation of Gallerie Christinae’s exhibit. Rolf Anderberg, a critic for the Posten, was particularly impressed and penned an article, published the next day, in which he affirmed: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer“.
As should be expected, in spite of the general enthusiasm, there was also the usual skeptic. One critic, making a stand, defiantly declared: “only an ape could have done this“.
There will always be somebody who must go against the mainstream. And, even if it’s hard to admit, in doing so he sometimes can be right.
Pierre Brassau, in reality, was actually a monkey. More precisely a four-year-old African chimpanzee living in the Borås Zoo.
Showing primate’s works in a modern art exhibition was Åke “Dacke” Axelsso’s idea, as he was at the time a journalist for the daily paper Göteborgs-Tidningen. The concept was not actually new: some years before, Congo the chimp had become a celebrity because of his paintings, which fascinated Picasso, Miro and Dali (in 2005 Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).
Thus Åke decided to challenge critics in this provocative way: behind the humor of the prank was not (just) the will to ridicule the art establishment, but rather the intention of raising a question that would become more and more urgent in the following years: how can we judge an abstract art piece, if it does not contain any figurative element — or if it even denies that any specific competence is needed to produce art?
Åke had convinced the zoo keeper, who was then 17 years old, to provide a chimp named Peter with brushes and canvas. In the beginning Peter had smeared the paint everywhere, except on the canvas, and even ate it: he had a particularly sweet tooth, it is said, for cobalt blue — a color which will indeed be prominently featured in his later work. Encouraged by the journalist, the primate started to really paint, and to enjoy this creative activity. Åke then selected his four best paintings to be shown at the exhibit.
Even when the true identity of mysterious Pierre Brassau was revealed, many critics stuck by their assessment, claiming the monkey’s paintings were better than all the others at the gallery. What else could they say?
The happiest person, in this little scandal, was probably Bertil Eklöt, a private collector who had bought a painting by the chimpanzee for $90 (about $7-800 today). Perhaps he just wanted to own a curious piece: but now that painting could be worth a fortune, as Pierre Brassau’s story has become a classic anecdote in art history. And one that still raises the question on whether works of art are, as Rilke put it, “of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism“.