Monday, September 10, 2012

Chimp (and Elephant) Art

When he served as curator of mammals at the London Zoo, animal behavior expert Desmond Morris studied a chimpanzee named Congo, who loved to paint.
According to Wikipedia, Morris “observed that the chimp would draw circles, and had a basic sense of composition in his drawings. He also showed the ability of symmetrical consistency between two sides of a sketch; when Morris drew a shape at one side of a piece of paper, Congo would balance the structure by making marks on the other half of the paper. Similarly, if a color on one side contained blue for example, he would add blue to the other side as well to keep balance.

"(Congo) soon began painting; the patterns he made were never distinguished, pictorial images, but usually of a vague "radiating fan pattern" in the abstract impressionism style. Between the ages of two and four, he produced about 400 drawings and paintings.

"Through that time, Congo developed a familiarity with his routine painting sessions with Morris. When a picture was taken away that he didn't consider complete, Congo would reportedly begin to scream and 'throw fits'. Also, if the ape considered one of his drawings to be finished, he would refuse to continue painting even if someone tried to persuade him to do so. 

(Video link)  "In the late 1950s, Congo made appearances on the British television show Zootime, which was presented live from the London Zoo by Desmond Morris. He died at ten years of age in 1964 of tuberculosis.” 

(Video link) Other zookeepers since have worked with orangutans and elephants in addition to chimpanzees. In this video, one keeper says that  “different species are encouraged to paint in different ways.”

With elephants, the handler holds onto the ear and uses it like a joystick to steer the trunk remotely for painting a pot of flowers. Above is a painting by a "guided" elephant named Boon Mee. 


Natalya said...

Great post, James - I am honored to have been gifted a handful of original paintings made (as I watched) by a gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo. Unfortunately there was less artistic expression driving their creation and more interest in the novelty of pushing around - and eating - the paint... they are pretty beautiful works nonetheless. Given more regular opportunity, I wonder if this particular ape could develop a better concept of creating his own art...

Janet Oliver said...

Don't know whether Will Tuck, the young artist in the second video, is an abstract painter or not, but when he says that he doesn't think that the animals are engaging in the same sort of process he is, I would disagree. Abstract expressionism is an emotional style of painting, with compositional elements such as those that Congo applied to his paintings. If emotions are the automatic byproduct of any sentient being's perceptions of its surroundings, then clearly animals have emotions - something anyone who shares his or her life with a pet knows - and expressing his emotions through the act of painting puts Congo at the same level of any abstract expressionist painter in terms of "process." The way elephants are trained to paint,as described in the video, doesn't bring forth the same emotive quality in their works. I have seen videos of elephants painting without that semi-coercive technique. Will try to find a link.

Janet Oliver said...

Found the link: These elephants are allowed to hold the brushes themselves, without any prompting via ear tugs. Jojo is the most famous elepainter - he even plays the harmonica.

46175 said...

Really Interesting.. but I feel like it is romanticized.. I mean comon, first off they are caged animals.. and second we don't know how they made the apes paint.. you can manipulate animals too.
Especially the scene with the elephant.. did he paint the flower because someone showed him how to do it? probably.

Still it's very striking.. and I wish I could see paintings of more wild apes.. and in general more of that kind.

Karen said...

"I'm the only artist in history to be outsold by his pet."

Does this include Mr. Kooks?

Love it. =^)

James Gurney said...

46175: Good points. And let's not forget bowerbirds, which create amazingly unique "sculptures" out of found objects with no function other than to impress the girls. It happens completely in the wild and can be seen as an art form, but not an art form in human terms.

Unknown said...

Perhaps these and similar paintings reveal the importance of redaction. How many paintings are NOT shown? Much an any painting, especially abstract ones, is created not on the canvas but in the eye of the beholders. It's not hard to see canvases made by a chimp with a paintbrush, but difficult to know what the chimp makes of them (or of, say, those by higher primates like Jasper Johns)

Lester Yocum said...

Okay, fine. I just heard that you have joined the faculty of the Portrait Society of America and will be at their April 2013 conference in Atlanta, Georgia. What can I say, James; there is much to you. Well done.

Nathaniel Gold said...

James thanks you for posting this as an artist that has dedicated most of my aesthetic voice to chimpanzees I really appreciate this post. Many Chimps living in sanctuaries use art as a form of therapy after a life of being forced into invasive surgery for bio medical research and toxicology studies.
Many of these sanctuaries sell the art at reasonable prices to raise funds to help house and feed the chimps in their retirement.

I have also donated some of my work to a sanctuary in Florida to help raise funds.

Thanks again
Nathaniel Gold

Lee Jerrett said...

i find the bower birds creations to be far more intruiging. They seem to be experimenting with a completely alien set of aesthetics which nonetheless is still intended for a viewer, so it's more akin to how human art probably adapted:

K_tigress said...

Thanks for sharing. I love these kinds of things.

If animals can make beautiful music, and dance, why wouldn't they be able to paint, draw and create sculptures?

It makes perfect sense.

Meera Rao said...

I loved Desmond Morris's book the ' naked ape" ( read a while ago! ) and read a few more by him. But somehow missed the fact that he was an artist too ! Thanks for sharing :)