Pigcasso, a painting pig from South Africa, has achieved world fame. His expressionist paintings sell all over the world. From July his works will be exhibited in Germany for the first time.

Pigcasso is actually a normal pig. It loves to eat, loves mud baths, and likes to be lazy. But the six-year-old sow has an extremely unusual hobby: she paints pictures, and she does so with great artistic talent.

The pig lives on a sanctuary in the South African wine-growing village of Franschhoek. Pigcasso picks up his brush two or three times a week. His keeper, Joanne Lefson, sets out a canvas and pots of paint for him, but the pig does the rest on its own. With its snout, it grabs the brush with an extra wide grip and swings its head up, down, to the right and then back to the left in an arc. There are many breaks in between, during which Pigcasso eagerly munches on apples, grist, melons and other delicacies as a reward.

The creative process remains a pig thing

Lefson selects the colors, adjusts the canvas and decides when a picture is finished. But she has no influence on Pigcasso’s creative process, the animal lover insists. To prove that no human hand is involved, she films the making of each piggy work of art, which Pigcasso signs with his snout at the end. Each buyer will receive a copy of the video, a certificate of authenticity, and a photo of the animal artist with the image.

Lefson openly refers to her role as the human partner of the artist Pigcasso: “It’s a human-non-human collaboration.” So Lefson’s name is next to Pigcasso’s signature. The work done by the sow that Lefson rescued from a slaughterhouse as a month-old piglet is what she describes as a “unique gift”. Pigcasso was actually supposed to be fattened for six months and then slaughtered. But she was lucky. Since 2016, the sow, which now weighs 500 kilos, has been living at Lefson’s sanctuary together with other pigs, chickens, goats, cows and sheep.

Lefson, a staunch animal activist, threw toys into the pen for little Pigcasso, knowing that pigs are “intelligent animals that appreciate entertainment.” But the sow destroyed every ball. She only showed interest in a few old brushes. “I thought to myself: maybe there’s something to it,” says Lefson, who once studied art and zoology. «I taught Pigcasso how to hold a brush. But she developed her expressionist technique herself,” says Lefson.

The success wasn’t planned that way

Pigcasso’s painting was purely a hobby until a New York couple visiting the court expressed an interest in purchasing one of the paintings. “From then on, things became a sure-fire success,” says Lefson. Pigcasso’s talent got around. Tourists from all over the world wanted to see the painting pig and buy his paintings. In the meantime, Pigcasso’s art has become world famous – and extremely expensive. A canvas is available from 1500 euros, an art print for around 200 euros.

In December, the animal artist officially entered the Guinness Book of Records: A German art collector had purchased Pigcasso’s picture “Wild and Free” for 22,000 British pounds (the equivalent of almost 26,000 euros) – the most expensive work by a non-human artist. In doing so, Pigcasso broke the existing record held by Congo the chimpanzee, whose picture once fetched £14,000.

Germans are generally Pigcasso’s best customers, says Lefson, followed by the Swiss, British and Americans. Pigcasso’s paintings now hang in homes around the world, from Colombia to Kazakhstan. The pig has also released a limited-edition wristwatch in collaboration with Swiss watchmaker Swatch. A book about Pigcasso’s life is due to be published next year. The British behavioral scientist Jane Goodall wrote the foreword for this. From July, Pigcasso’s works will be exhibited for three months in Hannoversch-Münden, Lower Saxony – her first exhibition in Germany.

Pigcasso isn’t the only animal with artistic talent. In the US, for example, DogVinci, a Labrador Golden Retriever mix, draws pictures for a good cause. In Thailand, painting elephants live at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center near the northern city of Chiang Mai. A black rhino named Msindhi once drew color on paper at the Denver Zoo in Colorado. At the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise Aquarium in Yokohama, Japan, a painterly creative beluga whale became world famous.

Mal training can be good for animals

Animals are certainly innovative, confirms Allison Kaufman, an animal researcher at the University of Connecticut in the US. For example, they might invent a new way of foraging, or new ways to impress a partner. In human care, an animal can be taught to paint just like any other behavior, says the researcher. As long as it is voluntary, such training is good for the animals because it stimulates them cognitively.

However, no one can definitively say whether an animal is self-aware or whether a painting is intentionally art, Kaufman points out. «Animals don’t have much need for emotional expression – at least as far as we know. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy animal art,” says the researcher. She herself has a wall full of pictures of animals at home, which she loves more than anything.

For Lefson, Pigcasso’s talent is a means to an end. Proceeds from the artworks go back to the sanctuary, Lefson says, to fund the dignified retirement of dozens of farm animals that were originally intended to end up on dinner plates. “I’m about much more than Pigcasso’s fame. I want to show that pigs have value, that they deserve to be treated better,” says Lefson.

She hopes that lovers of Pigcasso’s art will also advocate for more humane animal husbandry or at least think twice before reaching for ham and knuckles in the supermarket. Because who knows, maybe the pig sizzling in the pan would have been the next van Gogh.