Interesting Facts

Pierre Brassau: The chimpanzee painter who deceived the avant-garde world

Abstract paintings by a previously unknown artist “Pierre Brassau” were exhibited at a gallery in Sweden, earning praise for his “powerful brushstrokes” and the “delicacy of a ballet dancer”. None knew that Pierre Brassau was actually a 4 year old chimp from the local zoo.

Pierre Brassau’s first and only exhibition was held in 1964 at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden. With the exception of one critic, all of them praised his work, citing his “powerful strokes” and “clear determination.” Before long, people were asking themselves how someone with such artistic talent could have come from.

They discovered shortly after that Pierre Brassau was a chimpanzee and had been residing at the zoo at Borås Djurpark.

A local journalist masterminded an elaborate hoax to see if respected art critics truly knew what they were talking about, which included the entire art show and even the artist.

A few weeks prior to the art exhibition, the hoax started.

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Pierre Brassau thinking about his next painting. Youtube

A journalist from the Göteborgs-Tidningen newspaper named Åke “Dacke” Axelsson recently made the decision to test art critics. There were plenty of critics and galleries in Goteborg, and abstract art was becoming more and more popular. Axelsson questioned how proficient these art critics were in differentiating between “good” and “bad” abstract artwork.

In particular, could they distinguish between artwork created by chimpanzees and artwork created by humans?

So, Axelsson went to the nearby zoo and convinced the 17-year-old keeper to allow him to give some canvas and oil paints to Peter, the resident West African chimpanzee. At first, it looked like the project would fail because Peter was more of a paint enthusiast than an artist and preferred to eat paint rather than apply it to a canvas.

Peter eventually started painting the canvas, either because he was tired of eating the paint or because he had an idea. Cobalt blue, which seemed to have the greatest flavor, was frequently used in his paintings due to his taste preferences.

Like any good artist, Peter painted with a stash of snacks nearby, in this case a bunch of bananas. Axelsson observed that Peter painted more quickly the more bananas he consumed. He could occasionally finish nine bananas in ten minutes.

After Peter finished several paintings, Axelsson selected the four he considered to be the best and hung them.

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Pierre Brassau sampling some paint. Photo credit: YouTube

Although someone did remark that “only an ape could have done this,” Pierre Brassau’s work received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the morning Posten observed, “Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination.” His brushwork is twisted with an intense meticulousness. Pierre is a talented artist who moves like a ballet dancer.

Anderberg remained true to his statement that his painting was “still the best painting in the exhibition,” even after Axelsson disclosed that Pierre Brassau the artist was actually Peter the Chimpanzee.

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One of Pierre Brassau’s paintings. Photo Credit: Youtube

In fact, a private collector paid $90 (roughly over $700 in today’s currency) for an original Pierre Brassau piece.

Sadly, Pierre Brassau’s artistic career came to an end there because, in 1969, he was sent to the Chester Zoo in England. He spent the rest of his life there, eating bananas and blissfully oblivious to the commotion he had created in the world of abstract art.

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