no comments

Congo, the chimp artist admired by Miró, Picasso and Dali

It has always been difficult for me to decide what is art and what it is not. Many times, I found myself gazing at some amazing and moving paintings, and puzzlingly staring at others that meant absolutely nothing to me. I could argue the same about music, dance, theater, film and literature. But, what is art after all? Who can be referred to as a true artist? Guided by our subjectivity, we could give an indefinite number of answers leading to multiple conclusions, all of them probably correct for each one of us.

In my view ─and probably in others’─ art is something that moves us and makes us appreciate life from a different point of view. It is something that can help us change ourselves and our environment and invites us to enjoy and connect with our senses. Probably that was the reason why Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso loved Congo’s works. Congo was a chimpanzee that created four hundred paintings in abstract expressionist style in the late 1950’s.

painting of monkey painting

Painting of monkey painting

Apparently, Picasso hung one of Congo’s paintings on the wall of his Parisian home, and Salvador Dalí praised Congo’s paintings to the detriment of those of Jackson Pollock. Also, Joan Miro exchanged some of his sketches for one of Congo’s. In 2005, three of the pictures Congo painted in 1957 were sold at an auction at 26,000 dollars in Bonhams, the prestigious auction house in London. At that same auction, paintings by Botero, Renoir and Andy Warhol were offered but nobody bought them. Howard Hong, the art collector who bought Congo’s paintings, stated that they resembled Kandinsky’s early works and, for that reason, he was fascinated by them.

Painting of Congo

Painting of Congo

Congo could establish himself as a famous artist and that raises the following questions: what is the origin of art? What are the first forms of art? Is art intrinsic or prior to humans? Where do we draw the line? From an anthropological point of view, art is a form of culture and appears when our ancestors, the Australopithecus, managed to stand on their hind legs and free their hands for creation. Neanderthals, other ancestors of ours, more evolved ─however─ than the Australopithecus, are thought to be the authors of the first cave paintings, which are considered to be art. So regardless of who created a work of art, if it moves us and we happen to like it, isn’t that enough? I think it is.

Painting of Congo

Painting of Congo

Congo started to paint as part of a study carried out by Desmond Morris, an English ethologist, who went further back in the evolution chain and proved that monkeys also have artistic sensitivity. In 1956, he decided to teach Congo, a two-year-old chimpanzee to draw and paint. And surprisingly enough, the chimp started to paint and paint. Little by little, Congo learnt to hold the paintbrush with his index finger and his thumb, as some monkeys have opposable thumbs as we, humans, do, although not as developed as ours. As part of the investigation, Morris gave Congo blank sheets of paper and other sheets of paper with geometric figures in them, and in the latter ones, Congo painted inside the lines of such shapes. In sheets with multiple geometric figures, he painted a line inside each one of them, and, in the blank sheets, he always painted in the middle of them, all of which proved that Congo had a purpose and did not paint by chance. Furthermore, all of Congo’s paintings had a motif he repeated in different works, which proved that he had developed his own style. In some paintings, he painted a fan-like shape from the bottom up and, in others, he innovated by painting such shape from the top down. He felt irritated when he was interrupted while he was painting and when he considered that a painting was finished, it was impossible to persuade him to keep on going. However, it was necessary to provide Congo with different colors separately because he would otherwise mix them, making it difficult to differentiate them. Morris compiled the results of this study in his book The Biology of Art. In addition, he prepared an exhibition of Congo’s works together with the works of other monkeys in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Israeli philosopher Ben Amí Scharfstein is another thinker in line with Morris. In Scharfstein’s book Of Birds, Beasts and Other Artists he claims that art is by no means intrinsic to humans and that both humans and animals are capable of creating motives and symmetries. I am really happy that Congo could pursue his vocation as an artist with the help of Desmond Morris and that his art enriched and livened up the lives of many. That is what art pursuits after all and beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.