16. A Chimpanzee Painting

By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)

This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.[1]

Congo’s many appearances on ITV, Britain’s new commercial television network, and a highly publicised exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1957, have left a rich historical record. One thing quickly became clear as I examined the relevant press clippings in the Zoological Society of London Library: Congo’s pictures engaged the thorny question, so salient in the 1950s and 1960s, of what made humans unique. Did his paintings prove that an aesthetic sense was merely another part of our apish heritage? Or were they merely the ‘reflex twitchings [sic]’ of an ape?[2]

In 2005, the pictured work sold alongside two others for £14,400 at a Bonhams auction. ‘Twitchings’ or not, these paintings today represent valuable collector’s items from a unique historical episode at the intersection of art and science.

[1] Desmond Morris, The Biology of Art (London: Methuen, 1962), 22.

[2] “Regent’s Park School,” New Statesman,12 October, 1957. 

Image: ‘Untitled Abstract’. Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chimpanzee_congo_painting.jpg#filelinks

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