Reincarnated Rembrandts

Reincarnated Rembrandts


Captive chimpanzees have been taught a variety of skills, and some have learned a few tricks on their own. At least one chimp has taken to the fine arts.

In 1964 there was an exhibition of the art of a Monsieur Pierre Brassau, which drew much praise from the critics. Of course they were unaware that Monsieur Brassau was a chimp named Pierre, who created his art while seated before his easel eating a banana and wielding a brush and palette in his cage in a Swedish zoo.

Actually the paintings were somewhat messy and elementary. But to trendsetters of the sixties they were attention—getting and showed the genuine originality demanded during this era of pop art. Pierre did, however, have competition.

San Francisco, the birthplace of many different psychedelic art, was also the home of a natural artist know to his associates as "Willie." It is not particularly surprising, therefore, that Willie, who executed some most unusual paintings, was a large earthworm.

Willie's owner would dip him in paint, drop him on a canvas, and let him wiggle his way across. Multicolored paint provided a most colorful mess of meaningless patterns. This went on for nearly two years, 1963—65, during which time Willie produced nearly 200 paintings, some selling for up to $100. There is no doubt that beauty is in the eyes and mind of the beholder!

But is it art? If art is "the perfection of nature," "the embodiment of great ideas," or the "the immortal movement of its time," the works of Pierre and Willie would scarcely qualify. If art can flourish only "when there is a sense of adventure . . . of complete freedom to experiment," the directors of Pierre and Willie are the artists. But if art is the "most intense mode of individualism that the world has known," quite possibly the chimpanzee and the earthworm may be counted among the greatest.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth