From 1956–1959, surrealist artist and zoologist Desmond Morris worked with Congo the chimpanzee to observe and record his interest in “creating art for art’s sake”. Congo made around 400 artworks during the period, and now 91-year-old Morris has decided to sell all but one of the paintings in his possession at a show at The Mayor Gallery in London.
Morris worked with a number of apes in his research but explains that none matched Congo’s apparent artistic instinct. “No other apes were controlling the mark making and varying the patterns as he was,” Morris says. “I originally picked Congo out as one of the more boisterous at the zoo and felt that his strong personality would respond well to to focused periods of working together.”
This work involved Morris offering his a pencil and card to draw on, which he did, and then paint and pastels, observing his inclination to draw circles and repeat motifs, such as a fan pattern. He also showed an ability to create basic compositions, showing understanding of symmetry and aesthetic balance. Morris saw this research as evidence of primates’ urge to make and play with visual patterns, especially shown by Congo’s enjoyment of the sessions.
A selection of paintings by Congo were exhibited at the ICA and picked up by renowned collectors including Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.
Congo died in 1964, but Morris has since continued research into the subject, publishing The Artistic Ape in 2013, tracing “the evolution of human artistic endeavour over three million years”. His second book, The Naked Ape (1967), was translated into 29 languages and listed among the 100 best-selling books of all time.
Meanwhile in 2005, auction house Bonhams sold three of Congo’s paintings for £14,400. This new show will feature 55 of Congo’s paintings. Morris commented on his decision to sell all but one of his favourite paintings from the time, saying “I am holding onto the serious, scientific research notes that I made during my years working with Congo, but, at 91 years old, I now would rather that the paintings and drawings be made available to other collectors, to whom I hope they will bring as much pleasure as they have to me.”
Works on sale will range from £1,500 – £6,000. There will also be a limited edition catalogue on sale, showcasing Congo’s entire output, each signed by Morris.
Congo the chimpanzee: the birth of art is on show at The Mayor Gallery, London from 3 – 19 December 2019.