This winter, a rather unorthodox artist will have an exhibition at one of London’s highly regarded galleries. Having passed away nearly 50 years ago, the artist puts an interesting spin on the phrase ‘a five-year-old could do that.’ The works that will hit the floor at Mayor Galleries in December aren’t by a child, though, but by a chimpanzee named Congo.
Unusual as it may be, Congo became one of the most-loved painters of his time much in part because of Desmond Morris, a zoologist, ethologist, and a painter, himself. In the 1950s, Morris, who also wrote The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, was the host of ‘Zoo Time,’ a television show that was broadcast from the London Zoo. Now 91, Morris was the person who set Congo on his short-lived career as an artist and today, he owns the 55 works by Congo that will be on show at Mayor Galleries.
Morris recalled in the Telegraph the day he offered Congo a pencil and paper saying ‘He took [the pencil] and I placed a piece of card in front of him.’ ‘This is how I recorded it at the time,’ continued Morris, ‘“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.”’ From there, Morris offered Congo more supplies to create his works and, eventually, they ventured into painting. Congo often preferred a fan pattern, which according to Morris reflected the way that apes fan out leaves for a nest, but, as is the case with Split Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot, Congo occasionally veered from his usual pattern. As Congo continued, Morris watched the chimp make specific choices in his composition. In fact, the reason that Split Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot was so monumental was that it was the first time Congo choose to depict something different from his familiar fan patterns. Thus, it was his first artistic choice.
Over the course of three years, Congo created more than 400 artworks, which have been included in a number of exhibitions. In 1957, Morris curated an exhibition entitled ‘Painting by Chimpanzees,’ which included Congo’s works at the Contemporary Arts in London and as recently as 2005, Congo’s works were a part of another show at Mayor Galleries. His works were bought by many over the years including Picasso and Joan Miró. In 1964, however, Congo passed away at the age of 10 after succumbing to tuberculosis.
‘Congo’s ability to make a controlled abstract pattern and then to vary it in different ways meant that inside the ape brain there was already an aesthetic sense—very primitive but nevertheless present in a non-human species,’ Morris told artnet News via email. ‘Watching him paint was like witnessing the birth of art.’ Following the exhibition Morris most all of the works will be on sale as Morris hopes they will be cherished by others who grew fond of Congo. Following the 2005 exhibition at Mayor Galleries, three of Congo’s works sold for a total of $25,000 and it’s estimated that the upcoming show could bring in as much as $250,000.
The only work that won’t be for sale though, is Split Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot, which will remain with Morris.
‘Congo the Chimpanzee: The Birth of Art’ will be on view between December 3rd and 19th at London’s Mayor Gallery.