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Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).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.

Mouse serenade

Even mice sing.
We have known that for 50 years, but we are only recently beginning to understand the complexity of their songs. Part of the difficulty of studying mice songs lies in their ultrasonic vocalizations, frequencies the human ear cannot perceive: in the wild, this kind of calls happen for example when a mouse pup calls for his mother.

In April, in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, a new Duke University research appeared, showing how mice songs are really much more intricate than expected.
Researchers Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson and Erich D. Jarvis have exposed the mice to different social contexts and, using new specifically elaborated software, they have analysed the frequency modulation and duration of these ultrasonic calls. Researchers have been able to break down the songs into “syllables” and clusters of sound repeated to a certain rythm, and to discover how they vary according to the situation.

If a male mouse is exposed to female urine, and therefore gets convinced that she is somewhere nearby, his singing becomes louder and more powerful, if somewhat less accurate; to awake a sleeping female, he utilizes the same song, but the “syllables” are now pronounced much more clearly.
Female mice seem to prefer songs that are complex and rich in variations; even so, when a male finds himself near an available female, his elaborate courting song switches to a simpler tune. Once the potential mate has been attracted, in fact, our little mouse needs to save energy to chase her around and try to mate.

The mouse’s ability to sing is not as articulate as in songbirds; and yet, changes in the syntax according to social context prove that the songs convey some meaning and serve a precise purpose. Researchers are not sure how much mice are able to learn to modify their vocalizations (as birds do) or how much they just choose from fixed patterns. Forthcoming studies will try to answer this question.

It is nice to better understand the world of rodents, but why is it so important?
The goal of these studies is actually also relevant to humans. In the last decade, we understood how mice are extremely similar to us on a genetic level; discovering how and to what extent they are able to learn new “syllables” could play a fundamental part in the study of  autism spectrum disorders, particularly in regard to communication deficits and neural circuits controlling vocal learning.

Male mice song syntax depends on social contexts and influences female preferences, Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson, Erich D. Jarvis. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 1, 2015.