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Actor, Painter, Chimpanzee

cheeta.jpg While I was working at the National Gallery in London, the artist in residence was Peter Blake, who became famous to many because of his cover of the Beatles album, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.As is the custom, the artist mounts an exhibition at the Gallery at the end of his stay. Peter Blake regarded another painter as his partner and collaborator, so he wanted that artist to share equal billing in the exhibition. The stage was set, then, for a historic first.As Britain’s foremost old masters museum, the National Gallery featured this artist, a chimpanzee, in the exhibition entitled Now We Are 64. The introductory wall showed photos of both artists, Peter Blake and Cheetah, with biographies. Indeed, they were both 64 years old, and like Blake, Cheetah had spent much of his life painting, especially after he retired from the movies.But what did the two artists have in common, really, I wondered? While Blake’s paintings showed subjects from pop culture, Cheetah’s were abstract: bold swaths painted for the sheer joy of movement and color. Was Blake deliberately poking a finger in the art critic’s eye? A chimpanzee at the National Gallery, home to the most accomplished masters: Vermeer, Van Eyck, Leonardo, Rembrandt–and now Cheetah? 

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