Merry Christmas!

Buon natale

This year I wanted my Christmas greetings to be a little more intimate and heartfelt.

That’s why I decided to make this minipost only visible to those who proved their interest by subrscribing to email updates or following my site via WordPress. It’s my way of thanking you, because being able to count on regular readers engourages me to improve and to keep on sharing the wonders I encounter during my researches.

If you enjoy the blog, you could consider making a small donation through PayPal using this link.
But the best way to support my work is to buy (for yourself or for a friend) the books in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection: you can find them in the official bookshop on Libri.it or on Amazon. And yes, they’re both in Italian and English.

I wish you a happy Christmas and… Keep The World Weird!

Buon Natale BB

The last embrace

They found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrézarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

(V. Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831)

Thus, with Quasimodo holding his Esmeralda for eternity, ends Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) by Victor Hugo.

There is something awfully sad yet sublime in the image of two skeletons fixed in a last embrace: two lovers giving shelter to each other as the definitive cold makes its way, seemingly embodying the romantic ideal of love conquering death. “When you die, you always die alone“, sang Fabrizio De André; and yet, these remains seem to have experienced an enviable departure, as it grants the privilege of an extreme and intimate moment of inner thoughtfulness.

Earlier this year, in Greece, on the Diros archeological excavation site, two hugging skeletons were found: a man reclined behind a woman. These remains date back to 3.800 B.C., but even if “double” burials are quite rare, the one in Diros is actually not the only nor the most ancient one.

At the Archeological Museum in Mantua you can admire the so-called Lovers of Valdaro. The datation is neolithic, around 6.000 years ago. Their fetal position is typical of his kind of burials, but the two were layed down together.

Mantua2

And yet Mantua’s record of the “World’s most ancient lovers” is defied by the skeletons found in 2007 in the Turkish region of Diyarbakir, dating back to 8.000 years ago. They too are suspended in this final embrace for which we might never know the actual reason, as their love story flourished and ended before recorded History.

Once again in Greece, in the region of Agios Vasileios, a few kilometers south of Sparta, two skeletons came to light in a similar position, and they date back to 1.600-1.5000 B.C.: these two lovers are laying on their side, and the man’s hand sustains the woman’s head in a delicate gesture, unaltered after more than three millennia.

Among the 600 tombs excavated in the Syberian village of Staryi Tartas and dating back to the Andronovo Culture, some dozens feature double burials, or even family burials. The archeologists can only guess the origin these graves: are these traces of sacrificial rites, or were these collective graves meant for the souls to travel together to the afterlife?

siberia2

siberia3

siberia4

In the archeological site of Teppe Hasanlu, Iran, two other lovers were found lying face to face inside a brick bin. Researchers believe the two hid inside that bin to escape the ancient citadel’s destruction, occured at the end of IX Century B.C.; as they conforted each other, amidst the cries of massacre, they probably died by asphyxiation.

Lovers clinged to one another even during another kind of destruction: the terrible eruption of Pompeii in 79.B.C. sealed under the ashes some couples in the act of protecting each other.

The “lovers of Modena”, located some years ago while building an apartment block, date back to V-VI Century A.D. The two are holding hands, and the woman looks towards the man; it is believed that he was staring back at her, until the cushion under his head deteriorated, misplacing the skull.

More recent, but certainly not less striking, are the skeletons found in Cluji-Napoca, Romania. The man and woman, who lived between 1.400 and 1.550, were buried fcing each other, holding hands. According to the first reconstructions, it seems the man might have died in an accident or a violent fight (his sternum was fractured by a blunt objet), while the woman might have died of a broken heart.

We would like to end with the most touching, and recent, example. In Roermond, Netherlands, there are two really exceptional graves: those of Infantry Colonel J.W.C. van Gorcum and his wife J.C.P.H van Aefferden. Married in 1842, they stayed together for 38 years, until in 1880 the Colonel died, and was buried in the protestant lot of the town cemetery. His wife, who was catholic, knew she could not be buried beside him; she decreeted that her remains were not to be interred in her family tomb, but as close as possible to her husband’s – just on the other side of the wall dividing the prostestant section from the catholic one.

Since she died, in 1888, the two monuments have been holding hands, over the barrier which tried to keep them separate, in vain.

Christmas presents – II

Has the consumistic frenzy infected you yet, like every year? Are you panicking at the last minute, wiping out every good idea and whatever creativity has left you? All the other presents seem more original than yours?
Here are some gift ideas from Bizzarro Bazar.

Survival stockings
This year we haven’t heard any prophecy about the end of the world but, as you know, the Apocalypse is always near. So here is the perfect tactical stocking to hang by the fireplace, fully-equipped with pockets for your ninja weapons, handles, snap-hooks, velcro and zippers, designed to hold every essential MacGyver tool.

tactical-christmas-stocking-thumb

tactical-christmas-stocking-8464RuckUp Christmas Tactical Stocking

Half pint
Speaking of survival, it should be noted that the festive period always deliver a hard blow to your liver. If this year you’re considering the idea of limiting your alcohol assumption, but you fear you will lose your face with your friends, here is the clever half pint glass that looks like a pint glass, when seen from the side.

half-pint-glass-_4_

half-pint-glass-_5_

half-pint-glass-_1_Thumbs Up Half Pint Glass

Zombie slippers
With the first cold, there is nothing better than slip your feet in something warm. Even better if it is the mouth of a zombie, quietly gnawing on your ankles as you relax by the fireplace.

ea01_plush_zombie_slippers

ea01_plush_zombie_slippers_inuse

Zombie-Head-Slippers-2

VENKON – Calde Pantofole di Peluche a Disegno Zombie

Calendars to your (bad) taste
Wonders of Christmas: we are bound to give a present even to people we cannot stand. Most of the times we then resort to the most trivial and impersonal gift there can be, the calendar. But why not pushing things a little further, and spoil the whole year 2016 for your worst enemy?
One solution could be those calendars which redefine the concept of bad taste: the one offering monthly pictures of dogs pooping, or the roadkill calendar.

pooping-dogs-calendar-2016-8595

pooping-dogs-calendar-2016-thumb

pooping-dogs-calendar-2016-9709

2016 Pooping Pooches Calendar

s762244714273809980_p3_i7_w549

Roadkill Calendar 2016

And, after the calendars for enemies, here are those for friends. Still weird, but with a much more refined irony, the Crap Taxidermy wall calendar presents the most hilarious taxidermy gone wrong.

201600000966

201600000966_1

201600000966_4Crap Taxidermy 2016 Wall Calendar

The calendar from our friends at Morbid Anatomy, on the other hand, is a thing of pure beauty. It features photographs exploring the collections from 12 different Museums all around the world, and on its pages  someimportant dates for the lovers of macabre are noted, such as Edward Gorey‘s birth, the Dia de los Muertos or the Santa Muerte festivities.

cal1

MorbidAnatomyCalendar201614

cal2

MorbidAnatomyCalendar201616

Morbid Anatomy Curious Collections 2016 Wall Calendar

Candles
Another classic present, if a bit corny, are artistic candles. The ones we suggest here are granted to surprise those who light them up.

melting-reindeer-skeleton-candles-1112

melting-reindeer-skeleton-candles-426

melting-reindeer-skeleton-candles-3577PyroPet Candles Dyri Candle, Light Blue

hatching-dinosaur-egg-candle-8981

hatching-dinosaur-egg-candle-6695

hatching-dinosaur-egg-candle-6986

Dinosaur Egg Candle

Flower grenade
In this time of warlike tensions, it’s time to go back putting flowers in your guns. You can do it in your own garden, throwing this grenade made of clay that is designed to melt with the first rain, releasing its seeds and granting the blooming of lively colors from this instrument of death.

7744

7745Flower Grenade

Christmas songs
Lastly, what would Christmas be without traditional songs? This year you can delight your relatives coming over to lunch with a playlist of Christmas melodies performed (or, better, shouted) by goats. Surprisingly, behind this project there is the charity action of ActionAid, aiming to raise awareness of the importance of goats in the fight to poverty. Enjoying your relatives’ dismay as you know deep in your heart that you have done a good deed, is really invaluable.

All I Want For Christmas Is A Goat

Balthus’ adolescents

Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.

(Cesar A. Cruz)

Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.

In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.

Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.

The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).

But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?

Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.

Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.

Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and  meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).

In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.

Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.

Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.

Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.

Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.

Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.

But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.

This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.

And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.

Smoked mummies

a

The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.

b

c

d

e

f

It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.

g

  l

m

n

This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.

o

p

r

s

t

The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.

u

v

z

z1

z2

The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.

z3

z4

z5

z6

z7

z8

z9

Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.

z11

z15

z13

This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.

Timbac Caves3

Smoked-Mummies-of-the-Kabayan-Caves

Markings-on-the-legs-of-the-Fire-Mummies-of-Kabayan-Caves

In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.

Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.

Infant-Incubators-building-at-1901-Pan-American-Exposition

Baby_incubator_exhibit,_A-Y-P,_1909

Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.

 

In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

The mysterious artist Pierre Brassau

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“.


The first international press article on Brassau appeared on Time magazine. Other info taken from this post by Museum of Hoaxes.

(Thanks, Giacomo!)

Tea with the Muses

Te delle muse

On November 22, at 4pm inside the beautiful Civic Museum in Reggio Emilia, I will talk about macabre wonders together with historian Carlo Baja Guarienti.

Our chat is part of a series of lectures called Il Tè delle Muse (Tea with the Muses): I find this title quite gorgeous, because the ironic reference to the etymology of “museum” highlights its original function of being a place of enchantment and inspiration. There is therefore no better place to talk about what I have often called dark wonder; on these webpages I have been suggesting for years that we should overcome the prejudice attached to the word “macabre”, and understand that many of the so-called “morbid” curiosities can turn out to be noble and sometimes necessary passions. We will be discussing exoticism, new trends, wunderkammern and intersections between art, science and the sacred.

Here is the official page for the event.