Congo, a chimpanzee resident of the London Zoo, was two years old when he was handed his first pencil by zoologist Desmond Morris, the critic of elephant artistry mentioned above. Born in 1954, Congo became one of the first the first animal artists the world had ever known. According to Morris, it was clear from the beginning that Congo had a sense of color and composition: It was truly art for arts sake. Congo became increasingly obsessed with his regular painting sessions. If I tried to stop him before he had finished a painting, he would have a screaming fit. And if I tried to persuade him to go on painting after he considered that he had finished a picture, he would stubbornly refuse.
Though his life was cut short in 1964 by tuberculosis, Congo managed to produce over 400 painting during his eight-year career. His work was purchased and admired by Picasso and Dali, among others, and in 2005, three of his pieces were auctioned to an L.A. art collector for an incredible 14,400. It was probably the first case of chimpanzee art being auctioned.
That interest in chimpanzee artistry emerged during the 1950s was no accident, for it was in this era that it became fashionable to study the artistic work of children, mental patients, and poorly educated tribesmen in an attempt to rediscover artistic spontaneity. Philosophers, artists, and scientists alike believed that primate-produced art held clues about the roots of human artistry.
Unsurprisingly, the artistry behind Congos paintings was debated during his lifetime, and it remains controversial today. Art historian Thierry Lenain, who has studied animal-produced art, argues that animals like Congo dont produce art in the same way humans do; they have no concept of colors and shapes on paper possessing an intrinsic value. More recently, other primate artists are getting into the hobby. The Chimpanzee Art Contest was held in 2013. Six original chimpanzee created art pieces were auctioned off and the more than $5300 in proceeds went to support the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. Whatever one may think of Congo and other primate artists, theres no doubt that Congos paintings are beautiful.