Pierre Brassau, Monkey Artist
By Sebastian Velasco Diaz
In February 1964, journalists and critics gathered at an avant-garde exposition at Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden. There were works by artists from England, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Sweden, but the most discussed works that night were a series of four paintings by an enigmatic, recently unknown French artist, Pierre Brassau. Reaction to the works was, on its great part, positive. Rolf Andenberg of the Göteborgs-Posten praised Brassau’s powerful, yet determined and graceful strokes, comparing his work to the grace and delicacy of a ballet dancer. Only one critic that night trashed Brassau’s work, commenting that “only an ape could’ve done this”. But perhaps, this critic never expected to be right: This was, indeed, the work of an ape.
“Pierre Brassau” was actually “Peter,” a 4-year old chimp from the Boras Djurpark Zoo. It was all an elaborate hoax perpetuated by Âke Axelsson, of the Göteborgs-Tidningen daily paper, who convinced Peter’s teenage keeper to give him a brush and some paint, and then had the chimp create several paintings. After evaluating them, he chose the best four and arranged to have them exposed at the Gallerie Christinae. The purpose of Axelsson’s experiment was to exhibit the art of a non-human primate artist, under the guise of an unknown human artist, to test whether critics could truly differentiate between true modern avant-garde art, and the work of an ape.
After Pierre Brassau was exposed to the world as a hoax shortly after, Rolf Andenberg (the critic who praised the paintings) sustained that Peter’s work was still the best contribution to the exhibition. In 1969, Peter was transferred to Chester Zoo at England, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Still, Axelsson’s experiment was a proof that not even the sharpest critics could differentiate between modern art and monkey art.
Pierre Brassau, Monkey Artist (1964), Museum of Hoaxes, http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/pierre_brassau_monkey_artist, accessed November 10th, 2019.