He was known as the Cézanne of the simian world, Picasso was the proud owner of a painting by Congo the chimpanzee and Miró swapped two of his own sketches for one of the ape’s creations..
Congo became a household name in Britain when he appeared alongside Desmond Morris in the television series Zoo Time, which ran from 1956 to 1968. At the same time, Dr Morris began a series of experiments to try to find out about the artistic sensibilities of chimpanzees.
At first Congo splashed the paint on, as any chimp would. But Dr Morris said that over two years in the late 1950s Congo suddenly changed the way he held the brush and became much more intense about his paintings.
Dr Morris said: “I was amazed. He focused on what he was doing. Every line he made logically followed the last one.”
Congo confined his work to the sheet of paper or canvas in front of him, rarely letting the paint dribble onto the table or floor.
The chimp also seemed to know when a picture was finished, putting down his brush. If the picture was taken away and brought back later he would refuse to work on it. But if a fresh canvas was presented he would set to work again.
In 1957 some of his best work was showcased at an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London entitled, rather unambiguously, Paintings by Chimpanzees. It received mixed reviews, but the public was enthusiastic and snapped up the pictures. Forgeries were also made – though Dr Morris insists he can spot the real thing.
Congo came to my personal attention (the above content coming from an auction catalogue) via the current Tate Modern Miro exhibition – in the Tate magazine an article by Dr. Morris recalls Miro’s visit to London Zoo and his acquisition of one of Congo’s paintings – after hearing Picasso had acquired one. I love Congo’s work – where chimp art is considered great or not, there is something quite beautiful in them. Love is definitely in the eye of the beholder.Follow @ispyer