The Weird Story of the Chimp Artist Who Fooled the Art World

The world of art is full of some pretty weird stories. The year was 1964, and at the time abstract art was very popular on the European art scene, with artists of the genre including Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline becoming sensations throughout Europe, but there was soon to be a new up and coming abstract artist who would take the world by storm. In February of that year, there was an exhibition held at the Gallery Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, in which the works of various Avante Garde artists from England, Denmark, Austria, Italy, and Sweden were being shown, but among these there were four paintings that stood out as particularly impressive.

One of Pierre Brassau’s paintings

As the journalists, students, and stuffy art critics wandered about the gallery perusing the paintings on offer, they noticed the works of an artist listed as a Frenchman named Pierre Brassau, who no one had ever heard of, but who all present were soon talking about and holding up as a genius. His paintings were seen as exquisite, and before long were being excitedly talked about, with everyone wanting to know who this newcomer Brassau was. One of the paintings was even purchased by a collector by the name of Bertil Eklöt for nearly a thousand dollars when adjusted for inflation, and one art critic named Rolf Anderberg, of the Göteborgs-Posten, would write of these works or art:

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.

This was all very high praise for the new artist, his paintings held high over the others at the exhibition, which were mostly described as “ponderous,” and indeed there was almost universal praise for Brassau’s work. Before long, there was much buzz and excitement about Brassau, with people waiting to see what he would put out next. Little did they know that they were all about to be played for fools, when it was soon learned that not only had they all been duped, but “Pierre Brassau” was actually a 4-year-old chimpanzee by the name of Peter. Wait, what?

Peter the chimp

The whole idea had been thought up by Åke “Dacke” Axelsson, a journalist at the Swedish tabloid newspaper Göteborgs-Tidningen, who had become sick of all of the pompous reviews of art critics on the increasingly popular world of abstract art. Axelsson had become tired of the elitist, stuffy reviews of these critics talking so highly of what to most people seemed to be merely mindless splashes and scribbles, so he had decided to put them to the test to see if they could really tell the difference between the abstract artwork of a human artist and that of, say, a chimpanzee. He wanted to know if they would really be able to tell between “good” and “bad” art. To do this, he had gone to the Sweden’s Borås Djurpark Zoo and managed to get the staff to allow him to give paints and canvases to the young chimp Peter.

The chimp was then given a steady supply of snacks and allowed to go nuts with the paint, although he had at first spent most of his time actually eating the paint rather than creating art with it. He was eventually shown how to use the brushes, and because the color cobalt blue was his favorite paint to eat, this color would be used heavily in his work and become sort of his signature style. The chimp Peter would create many paintings, and when he was finished, Axelsson simply chose what he felt were the four best ones and arranged to have them exhibited, changing Peter’s name to the suitably sophisticated sounding “Pierre Brassau” to complete the ruse. Although even Axelsson was skeptical that anyone would take much notice, and one art critic even mentioned “Only an ape could have done this” early on, it was much to his surprise that “Pierre’s” works would go on to gain almost unanimous acclaim in the art world. He had successfully managed to fool everyone.

Making it even more interesting is that even when the hoax came out, the critic Anderberg still insisted that the works of Brassau were the best paintings at the exhibition, and the chimp’s paintings continued to sell, either despite the fact that they were made by a chimp or because of it. After all of this, Peter would retire from painting and live out the rest of his days at Chester Zoo in England, after being transferred there in 1969. Amazingly, after this, chimpanzee art would become popular, with other apes also making waves. For instance, there is the chimpanzee named Congo, who created around 400 pieces from 1954 to the end of his life, included among his fans Pablo Picasso, and managed to sell one of his paintings in 2008 for $25,000. Not bad for a chimpanzee who would probably just as soon eat the pain as put it to canvas. Another painting chimp named Banghi had a painting put on exhibit in 2005 that was actually mistaken for a work by the famed Guggenheim prized artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay by none other than the museum’s director. Yet the most famous is still “Pierre Brassau,” the chimp artist who managed to get famous and trick everyone while doing it.

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