The abstract artist Pierre Brassau had his big breakthrough during his first and only exhibition in 1964. The critics were blown away by his paintings, praising his “clear determination” and “powerful strokes.” Others went on saying that “his brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness” and that “Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”
One critic, however, had a different opinion, claiming that “only an ape could have done this.” And he was in fact right. The name Pierre Brassau was the facade for a hoax started by the journalist Åke Axelsson at the Swdish newspaper Göteborgsposten. Abstract art was on the rise and he wanted to put the critics to the test who claimed they could tell the difference between “good” and “bad” abstract art.
Axelsson went to the zoo in the city of Borås and talked the 17-year-old zookeeper into letting him give a chimpanzee a canvas and some paint. Once Peter, the chimpanzee, grew tired of eating the paint he actually started putting it on the canvas. Axelsson then picked the four best paintings and put them on display, making a big impression in the art community.
Even after the hoax was revealed, one art critic stuck to his statement that “Pierre Brassau” still had made “the best painting in the exhibition.” Peter the chimpanzee, however, soon retired and was moved to Chester Zoo in England, unaware of what he had done to the abstract art community.
The Pierre Brassau paintings were sold to private collectors after the exhibition in the ’60s. Two of them have found the way back to Borås zoo and are located in one of the offices there. It is possible to see them by making an appointment with the staff.