It’s Chimpicassoesque

But is it art?

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 11 January 1959

CONGO, London Zoo’s three-year-old chimpanzee, known to millions as a TV personality, has retired from the public eye to settle down to the more serious and less public problems of married life. He shares a nice, semi-detached cage with his wives, Diane and Jenny.

In the past, many viewers will have seen him at work and play with Desmond Morris, who will shortly take up his new appointment as Curator of Mammals at the Zoo.

As an artist, Congo often painted pictures when appearing in Zoo Time, and today his name is almost as well-known internationally as that of Picasso.

In fact, Picasso himself has bought a Congo painting, and examples of his work are in the possession of the renowned biologist, Sir Julian Huxley, and the Director of London’s Natural History Museum, Sir Gavin de Beer. I, too, am the proud possessor of a “Congo.”

What is so special about the paintings of a young chimpanzee which has won both the interest and admiration of such great men as Picasso and Sir Julian, and the ridicule and condemnation of Sir Charles Wheeler, President of the Royal Academy? And what are his pictures all about? After all, there doesn’t seem to be much in them except a series of bold slashes and strokes of gay colour.

The fact remains, however, that Congo’s paintings are almost unique in world history. Only two or three other chimpanzees have ever done anything comparable, while none has produced such a sustained and progressive series of drawings and paintings as Congo has turned out during the past three years under the guidance of Desmond Morris.

It was soon evident to Morris that Congo possessed a highly developed sense of pictorial composition. Although the strokes of colour did not, of course, represent anything in particular, the overall effect of a completed Congo painting was one of a vigorously painted, brilliantly coloured design.

Just what I mean will be seen, at least so far as composition goes, if one considers our reproduction of a Congo painting. See how the dark strokes in the righthand corner balance the cluster of dark strokes on the left. That’s composition, and not even a President of the Royal Academy could do better!

On Thursday, in Granada’s People and Places, I’ll be showing some brand new film of Congo at work. In this, the obvious concentration and control which he puts into his painting will be seen. In the same programme. I will be discussing with John Cohen, Professor of Psychology in the University of Manchester, my exhibition, The Lost Image, which is on show at the Crane Gallery, Manchester, this month.

Why is it called The Lost Image? Until recent times the most important thing in painting was the image — a recognisable subject. That doesn’t mean that a painting should look like a photograph. But it does mean that you should be able to see what the artist is getting at — even if you don’t like it!

During the past few years a type of painting called Tachisme — from the French word “tacher,” meaning “to spot, splash or stain” — has arisen. Tachiste painters are at liberty to dribble and drip their paint on to a canvas laid flat on the floor; to throw it at a canvas and then, if they wish, to ride over it on bicycles, stamp on it, or set fire to it.

In fact, they can do anything at all that might help to produce, accidentally, some sort of interesting or attractive effect, devoid of any recognisable image. The Lost Image sets out to shame and explode the whole idea of Tachisme — or Action Painting, as it is also known — by showing how absurd, even lunatic, it is that an adult artist should try and work without an idea in his head, when even Congo and young Timothy Vaughan, aged three, whose “train” I also reproduce, appear to have something quite definite in mind. Timothy’s train is certainly no photograph, but the idea of the carriages and the engine puffing up its smoke, are quite clear.

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