Ape Artists of the 1950's


I began my research into the origins of aesthetics in 1956 with Congo. Over a three-year period he produced about 400 drawings and paintings. With the drawings I was able to prove that the chimpanzee brain is capable of creating abstract patterns that are under visual control. To put it simply, the position of one line influenced the position of the next line, and so on, until the drawing was considered (by the ape) to be finished. If I placed geometric patterns on the paper, these altered the position of the animal’s lines. In this way I was able to demonstrate that the chimp was able to balance a picture, left to right, and was able to develop a visual theme and then to vary that theme.
Congo’s favourite design was a radiating fan pattern and once he had become familiar with this, he started to vary it, splitting it in two, reversing it, curving it, stippling it, and even adding a subsidiary fan. He kept his lines within the area of the paper and tried to avoid going over the edges. And he knew when a picture was finished, refusing to continue until a new sheet was offered to him.
He was never given any reward for his paintings. Even at the level of he chimpanzee brain, it was clearly ‘art for art’s sake’, and attempts to stop him painting before a picture was complete led to temper tantrums and screaming fits. At the peak of his picture making, the intensity with which Congo concentrated on his work was astonishing.
At a certain point I allowed him to experiment with coloured paints. He enjoyed playing with these new ‘toys’ and at first his paintings contained too many accidental marks to be of any interest. But then, after tiring of the novelty of the paints, he suddenly started to concentrate with great intensity on what he was doing. I would hand him a paint-loaded brush and he would work with it a little, a lot, or perhaps reject it altogether. Then he would be offered another colour, and so on, until he considered the picture was finished.
Eventually he became bored by the regular painting sessions and started to obliterate the sheets of paper with large masses of paint, but before this final stage was reached, he did enjoy a period of several months during which every line or mark was placed exactly where he wanted it. There were about 70 paintings from this peak phase, and some examples were exhibited at the ICA in London in 1957. They created a sensation and examples were acquired by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Roland Penrose, Jock Whitney, William Copley, Julian Huxley, Herbert Read, Solly Zuckerman, Sidney Bernstein, Princess Zeid, Prince Philip and a number of other collectors.
Congo shared his exhibition at the ICA with an American Chimpanzee Betsy, who specialized in finger-painting. In 1958 their work was also exhibited in a travelling exhibition in the United States. A single painting by Betsy is included in the present exhibition.
A male Orang-utan called Alexander, living at the London Zoo, was also offered paints, and working in a slow and deliberate manner he produced several pictures in 1957 that showed a markedly different pattern from those of Congo. Two of these paintings are included in the present exhibition.
In 1959 a female Gorilla called Sophie was offered paints by her keeper at the Rotterdam Zoo and she, too, became fascinated by the challenge of making abstract patterns and several of her works are also on show here. Despite her great size, her use of crayon and brush was remarkably delicate and controlled.
The importance of these works by Great Apes is that they help us to understand the very ancient preoccupation with pattern making that has been demonstrated by the human species all over the globe. They may only display the germ of an aesthetic impulse, but the fact that they display one at all is frankly amazing.
It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists, that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.
Copyright: Desmond Morris and Mayor Gallery, July 2005