Pierre Pinoncelli specialises in making an amusing nuisance of himself. In other words, he is a 'performance artist', specialising in outrageous 'happenings', or artistic provocations. He is a retired seed merchant, and lives near the French city of Avignon. Very normal, really - wife, three children, nine grandchildren. In fact, little information on his childhood or personal life is available, suggesting it's not all that interesting. His wife, Marie-Claire, was his childhood sweetheart, and they have been together for more than half a century. He was born in Saint-Etienne in 1929, so he's no spring chicken, but he shows no sign of a lack of energy or enthusiasm for his 'art'. He likes to sport an eye-patch, though there is nothing wrong with either of his eyes.
In 1954 he began painting. He tended to paint rather disturbing large-scale canvases1 of skeletal, ghostly beings. But this was not the major part of his artistic career. The fame - and the headlines - came when he embarked on his series of 'happenings' in 1967.
All The World's a Stage
André Malraux was France's culture minister at the time. He was a colossus of French culture (he was a highly successful novelist) and his influence also extended into politics. He was responsible for the famous maisons de la culture, and a well-respected man in the art establishment. In 1967 he was opening the Chagall museum in Nice when Pinoncelli sprayed him with red paint. He later called this action 'a cultural attack', suggesting he was against Malraux's ideas about French art and culture.
Nice was a favourite stage for his happenings. In 1975 he robbed a bank with a (fake) sawn-off shotgun. He took ten francs and left. He later said, 'I intended to ask for one franc, but there was terrible inflation at the time so I decided to ask for ten'. He was apparently protesting against the twinning of the city with Cape Town - South Africa was then deeply entrenched in its apartheid system, which Pinoncelli vehemently opposed. That same year he appeared outside Nice's law courts covered in large yellow stars - in his words, a homage to deported Jews.
In 1994 he decided to pop over to Lyons for a change. He was a great fan of the Greek Cynic Diogenes, who preached a philosophy of asceticism2. Diogenes had been known to spurn clothing in his quest for spiritual enlightenment, and Pinoncelli did exactly the same thing. He was taken into police custody, but very disappointed when he was officially recorded as an 'exhibitionist', one of 41 arrested in the greater Lyons area that day.
In 2002 a 'performance art festival' was held in Cali in Colombia. At the time Farc3 guerrillas were holding Ingrid Bettancourt, a Franco-Colombian, hostage. Continuing his theme of protesting in rather unorthodox ways, he sliced off the tip of his little finger with an axe. It is now on display in the Cali arts museum, making Pierre Pinoncelli the only artist in the world to have a piece of his body on permanent exhibition.
He once dressed up as Santa Claus (to whom he bears a passing resemblance if one ignores the eye-patch) outside the Nice branch of the Galeries Lafayettes department store. He had Santa's usual sack of toys, but he elected to empty them onto the pavement and smash them to pieces as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas, in full view of horrified children who, reportedly, burst into tears. He then had to make a quick exit as angry parents chased him down the street.
The thing Pinoncelli was most determined to touch with his acts of 'creative destruction' needs a little introduction.
Marcel Duchamp exhibited something in 1917 which went on to become one of modern art's greatest icons. He did it as a joke, but the urinal he christened 'Fountain' and called art is now celebrated across the world. It was just an ordinary urinal, bought from a plumber's merchant. Duchamp intended to satirise traditional concepts of art. He famously said once that Rembrandts should be used as ironing boards.
This was the beginning of the 'ready made' movement, which declared that any object could become a work of art as long as an artist came along and proclaimed it to be artistic. This was a branch of the Dada movement, which began in Switzerland as a rejection of the Europe which accepted, and glorified, the mass slaughter of the First World War. It prized the random, the accidental and absurd.
Pinoncelli was a follower of Duchamp, and believed as Duchamp had that art did not lie in the object, but in the creative sprit of the artist.
Later on the original somehow disappeared. In 1964 Duchamp allowed eight replicas to be made. Each was signed in a unique way (the original was signed with the fictitious name 'R Mutt'). One resides in the Tate Gallery in London; another belongs to the French state and is kept at the Centre Pompidou.
Pinoncelli railed against the commercialisation of Duchamp's art. He claimed it was suffocating its very spirit and absorbing it into the mainstream - a place it should never be.
In 1993 the French state's copy was exhibited in Nîmes. Pinoncelli urinated in it and struck it with a hammer. He was fined, but a group called 'the Friends of Pinoncelli' managed to raise the money to pay. In January, 2006 he did the same thing, only with a rather smaller hammer and no bodily fluids. He said he attacked it to rescue it from the 'institution' - 'the world of money-obsession and official violence in which we live' and, most of all, 'museum bureaucracy and art establishment, with its snobbery and its cliquishness and its shiny invitations and champagne receptions and art-denying money values'.
More Valuable Than Ever
Pinoncelli stood before the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris not long after his second attack, accused of 'damaging a monument or object of public utility'. He argued that, if he had done anything, he had increased the urinal's value, thanks to his creative input ('My hammer blow was symbolically the auctioneer's hammer, coming down on a new work of art.').
He did not win his case. Alfred Pacquement, director of the national museum of modern art, called him a 'vandal' and a 'would-be artist', comparing damaging the urinal to damaging one of Michelangelo's statues. Pierre was given a three-month suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay a whopping €200,000 'moral damages' to the French museums service and €14,352 to repair the small hole he had chipped into the porcelain.
His actions had made the urinal unique, he later claimed. None of the other seven copies was quite like this one. He made an appeal to the Tate Gallery to swap their staid, original version for the French one, saying it would be one in the eye for the French art establishment.
Pinoncelli lives in a villa on the edge of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Next-door is his concrete 'bunker-studio', which is covered with various murals. One shows Mickey Mouse putting up his middle finger. He also owns a painting of a green cow with real, military medals pinned to its chest. Underneath is written 'kill all the cows'. Quite what Pierre Pinoncelli has against cows, we may never know.
It is clear Pierre Pinoncelli doesn't agree with what the establishment believes to be art. He would undoubtedly deplore much of today's modern art scene, since it treats artistic objects all too seriously. That said, he does not go so far as Duchamp in the rejection of all art. He considers the fine paintings of the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh to be a different type of art - 'more traditional', in his words. But he also makes it clear there should be room for the Duchamp type of art as well.
Anyone reading this could be forgiven for thinking Pierre Pinoncelli was a little doolally. After all, he once threw himself into the harbour at Nice in a weighted bag. Following his paint attack on Andre Malraux he was ordered to visit a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed as suffering from 'hypomania', or bouts of euphoria and creativity. Pierre responded thus:
If that is what being crazy means, I wish the whole world was as crazy as me.