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Arts feature

Meet Congo, the Leonardo of chimps, whose paintings sell for £14,500

Picasso, Miro and Dali all owned Congo's paintings. Stuart Jeffries talks to Desmond Morris, who discovered the chimp's talent in the 1950s

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

Three million years ago one of our ancestors, Australopithecus africanus, picked up a pebble and took it home to its cave, most likely because the pattern of lines and holes on its surface looked beguilingly like a face. Perhaps this was the birth of art.

Or perhaps not. Maybe art arrived in this world later. One day in 1940 Marcel Ravidat was walking in the Dordogne when his dog, Robot, fell into a hole. Robot had stumbled across the entrance to a network of caves containing more than 600 wall and ceiling paintings of horses, deer, aurochs, ibex, bison and cats dating from 17,000 to 15,000 BCE. The discovery of Lascaux’s caves in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima resonated for many. ‘Light is being shed on our birth at the very moment when the notion of our death appears to us,’ said Georges Bataille in his 1955 lecture on prehistoric art entitled ‘A Meeting at Lascaux’.

Desmond Morris, the anthropologist and author of the bestselling The Naked Ape, has another idea about when art began. ‘They say that Lascaux was the birth of art. It was not,’ says Morris. ‘It was the adolescence.’ Art was practised before humans existed. The ape brain has an aesthetic sense that can be expressed given the chance and, you’d suppose, some praise in the form of bananas.

Morris experienced a rerun of the birth of art in the mid-1950s during his three-year experiment into apes’ brains at London Zoo. ‘One chimp was called Charlie and he lived up to his name. He wasn’t very bright,’ Morris recalls. ‘But the other was called Congo. And he was a genius. He was the Leonardo of chimp painting.’

By the age of four, Congo had completed 400 abstract, expressionist paintings. Which shows how pathetic humans are: even Mozart only wrote his first music aged five. Like Hendrix or Schubert, Congo was taken from us too soon: in 1964, he died from tuberculosis aged ten.

This naked ape (Morris thankfully never demeaned Congo by dressing him in a beret or smock) is back in the news. This month, 55 of Congo’s paintings are being exhibited at London’s Mayor Gallery and are expected to sell for up to £6,000. That may be an underestimate: when Bonhams auctioned Congo’s work in 2005, three of his paintings went for £14,400 — more than 20 times their estimate.

This will be the last opportunity, says the gallery, to acquire a Congo. The latest works were discovered by Morris, now 91, following the death last year of his wife of 66 years, Ramona Baulch. ‘We had a large house in Oxford but it was full of memories so I had a clear-out and moved in with my family in Ireland.’ He reduced his library from 11,000 books to about 4,000, and also discovered an unsuspected cache of Congos which, all but one, he has decided to sell. You, too, could become, like Picasso, Miro, Dali, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, an owner of a Congo. Each of these men became interested in the chimp’s oeuvre following his debut exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1957. ‘At the time, there was a lot of tabloid fun with his paintings, but the most serious artists and critics saw the compositional flair and ability to vary a theme in Congo’s work.’ For some, indeed, Congo’s abilities outshone those of his human contemporaries. After seeing Congo’s work, Salvador Dali commented: ‘The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!’


’36th Painting Session, 13 March 1958′ by Congo. Image: © The Mayor Gallery

Morris’s notes on his experiment from the time record what happened when he gave Congo a pencil and put a piece of card in front of him. ‘Something strange was coming out of the end of the pencil. It was Congo’s first line. It wandered a short way and then stopped. Would it happen again? Yes, it did, and again and again.’ What amazed Morris, himself an accomplished surrealist painter, was the control Congo exercised over the line and his ability to make a motif and then produce variations on it.

Later Morris gave Congo paints. ‘He found that exciting. Initially it was splish splosh with no direction. He would take the colours I gave him in pots and mix them up into brown.’ Art critics would probably have considered this his faecal period. ‘So I started to give him pots of colour in random order.’ And so it happened that Congo developed post-splish-sploshism. ‘He was experimenting with forms, especially the form of a fan, balancing compositions, creating repeated motifs and experimenting with colour juxtaposition.’

Morris was thrilled to note Congo’s intense absorption, often softly humming to himself as he worked — like Glenn Gould, but hairier. ‘If I brought a half-hour session to a close before he had finished, he would have a screaming fit.’ Congo had become, like Christian Bale or Beethoven, a temperamental artist.

Morris saw Congo’s progress as evidence of primates’ innate urge to make and play with visual patterns, prefiguring that of humans. But his art was different from humans’ in remaining abstract. There was one moment when Morris hoped Congo would break through into representation. ‘Once he drew a circle with fierce concentration and started to make marks inside it. Then he looked at it. I have never before or since felt so strongly that I wished I could have talked to him than at that moment.’ Children, Morris argues, almost always start to make art by drawing a circle from which they construct a face. Then they draw arms on the face and only later in their development shift the limbs to a torso. If only Morris could have advised Congo how to develop this image, the chimp might just have become a portraitist.

But surely other animals have made that transition? Think of the Thai elephants whose plein-air self-portraits command the applause of tourists? ‘I investigated that and found it was an ingenious trick,’ says Morris. ‘The mahouts pull the elephant’s ear to induce it to produce a dot, and the other to produce lines. That way they produce what looks like a self-portrait, but is not.’ That said, Morris hails the intelligence of these elephants that can respond to having their ears pulled by producing marks on paper. You could probably do the same with Damien Hirst.

Did you teach Congo to draw or paint? ‘No, that would have spoiled the experiment. I was very strict with myself.’ Others have had fewer compunctions. Peter Gabriel, for instance, once jammed with Panbanisha, a female bonobo ape, before recording his 2002 album Up. Gabriel stipulated that she play the piano with one finger per hand and use only white notes while he played chords in A minor on a synthesiser in another room. She picked out a basic melody that clearly fitted with Gabriel’s accompaniment.

Since then Gabriel has been involved with an initiative by primatologists to encourage apes to go online, possibly communicating by means of pictograms (they recognise 400 of those and understand about 4,000 words, Gabriel has said). In the future, maybe, you might FaceTime with a chimp or be trolled by one on Twitter. ‘A lot of people make fun of that stuff,’ Gabriel told an interviewer, ‘but I’m completely at ease with it. I’m also at ease with the idea that, 100 years from now, we’re going to realise how slow we were to see the intelligence of species that surround us.’

’30th Painting Session 11th December 1957′ by Congo. Image: © The Mayor Gallery

Perhaps the former Genesis frontman has a point. The philosopher Timothy Morton argued in his book Humankind (2017)that, as soon as humans started farming in Mesopotamia 400 generations ago, we severed our relationships with other life forms in favour of exploiting and in some cases exterminating them. The Severing, as Morton calls it, was a catastrophe, whereby we lost our sense of our connectedness to everything on this planet. We must dispense with such hubris. So says what is called object-oriented ontology (best known by its disarming acronym OOO). OOO maintains that nothing has privileged status and philosophers exist equally with Xboxes and excrement. We must move beyond the Anthropocene, OOO devotees proclaim, wherein our species has committed ecological devastation and presided over the sixth mass extinction whereby animal populations across the planet have decreased by as much as 80 per cent since 1900.

OOO is having a moment in tandem with Extinction Rebellion. Hence, perhaps, an exhibition about mushrooms at Somerset House in the new year that invites us, through mushroom-related art commissions, ‘to reimagine society’s relationship with the planet’ (not necessarily by getting out of our collective gourd on fungal hallucinogens). Hence, too, a symposium last month called Design with the Living at the Design Museum about how bacteria, algae and fungal mycelia are helping us redesign homes and workplaces in sustainable ways. Maybe Congo’s paintings can now be considered part of a gathering #OOOToo movement, since they encourage humans to move beyond our species hubris.

Strikingly, the caves of Lascaux show what life was like before the Severing. Bataille noted that ‘whereas the Upper Paleolithic painters left us admirable representations of the animals they hunted, they used childish techniques to represent themselves’. And no wonder: animals were not just those artists’ meat and their companions, but sometimes their gods. But humans passed from a time in which we were capable of revering animals, argued Bataille, to one typified by the philosopher Descartes, who thought animals had no souls, and were little more than furry robots devoid of aesthetic sense or the urge to create. Congo’s canvases invite us to think otherwise.

Congo the Chimpanzee: The Birth of Art is at the Mayor Gallery. Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi is at Somerset House from 31 January until 26 April 2020.


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