Meet Congo the Chimp, London’s Sensational 1950s Abstract Painter

A few years ago, I watched and enjoyed My Kid Could Paint That, a doc­u­men­tary about Mar­la Olm­stead, a four-year-old abstract painter who became a brief art-world sen­sa­tion, her can­vas­es (which tow­ered over the tiny artist) at one point sell­ing for thou­sands of dol­lars apiece. Olm­stead raised the bar high indeed for all sub­se­quent preschool-aged art celebri­ties, but the world of unlike­ly painters in gen­er­al has a fuller, stranger his­to­ry. Wit­ness, for instance, Con­go the Chimp, the Lon­don Zoo’s artis­tic sen­sa­tion of the 1950s, a not­ed ani­mal artist who sold work to such not­ed non-ani­mal artists as Picas­so, Miró, and Dalí, the last of whom made a com­par­i­son with one of the best-known abstract painters of the day: “The hand of the chim­panzee is qua­si­hu­man; the hand of Jack­son Pol­lock is total­ly ani­mal!”


Con­go, who began his art career the moment he hap­pened to pick up a pen­cil, went on, writes the Tele­graph’s Nigel Reynolds, to become “a tele­vi­sion celebri­ty in the late 1950s as the star of Zootime, an ani­mal pro­gramme pre­sent­ed from the Lon­don Zoo by Desmond Mor­ris, the zool­o­gist and anthro­pol­o­gist. He became even more of a cause célèbre when the Insti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts mount­ed a large exhi­bi­tion of his work in 1957.

Crit­ics had a field day and debate about the mean­ing of art raged furi­ous­ly.” You can see Mor­ris, a sur­re­al­ist painter him­self, in addi­tion to his zoo­log­i­cal, anthro­po­log­i­cal, and tele­vi­su­al work, inter­act­ing with Con­go in the 1950s and reflect­ing on the place of the chim­panzee artist in his own career in the clip at the top of the post. The news­reel below cov­ers an exhi­bi­tion called The Young Idea, which fea­tured paint­ings not just from Con­go but from such Mar­la Olm­stead pre­de­ces­sors as three-year-old Tim­o­thy Vaughn and eigh­teen-month-old Gra­ham Phillips. One of Con­go’s paint­ings appears above.

And so to the obvi­ous ques­tion: But Is It Art? And assum­ing it is, writes John Valen­tine in The Philoso­pher, “what then fol­lows from such a clas­si­fi­ca­tion? What sort of dif­fer­ence does it or should it make in the way we approach and appre­ci­ate chim­panzee paint­ings? If they are art, what sort of crit­i­cal or inter­pre­tive dis­course about them should we engage in? Do we sim­ply appre­ci­ate the lines, colours, and forms of Con­go’s paint­ings and stop at that? Does it make any dif­fer­ence that the paint­ings were done by a mem­ber of a dif­fer­ent species? Should species dif­fer­ences make any dif­fer­ence in artis­tic val­ue?” It may not, at least com­mer­cial­ly speak­ing: Con­go may have had his moment six decades ago, but don’t think that means his work will come cheap; back in 2005, some of his paint­ings went up on the auc­tion block and fetched more than $25,620.

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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