Painted by Bakhari, a chimpanzee at the St. Louis Zoo.
In the late 1950s, the surrealism painter Salvador Dali saw one of the canvases by Congo, a chimpanzee, whose artworks had been shown on the British TV show Zoo Time.
“The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human,” Dali said. “The hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!”
Congo produced about 400 paintings and drawings. He was encouraged by animal behaviorist Desmond Morris (renowned author of The Naked Ape). Much of Congo’s art works were received with scorn and skepticism by the critics of London. But several great artists of the time were deeply impressed by Congo. Picasso is believed to have framed one of the chimp’s works on his studio wall after he received it as a gift, while Miro was also said to have owned one.
What would Dali, Picasso and Miro say about the work of Bakhari, a chimpanzee at the St. Louis Zoo? (Photo at top.) Bakhari is one of several chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and elephants, whose work is being featured at an exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.
Painting by Samantha, a Western lowland gorilla at the Erie Zoo, Pennsylvania.
And what might they of this, by Samantha, a gorilla at the Erie Zoo? Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum says he’s not entirely sure whether these painting constitute art. “Ape art is often compared to that of two- or three-year-old children in the ‘scribble stage'”, he said.
Few would say that this next piece, by Boon Mee of the Samutprakarn Zoo in Thailand.
Flowers by Boon Mee
But while apes are usually left to their own creative devices, elephant paintings are taught, guided or manipulated by the zookeepers. Ashby explained that these handlers “steer” the elephants’ trunks, as they hold the paintbrush, by stroking or pulling on their ears.
Painting by Baka
Chimpanzees aren’t up for having their ears pulled or stroked, so they’re simply given the painting materials and left to their own creative devices. Baka, an orangutan at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado, donated a painting to the exhibit. Co-curator Will Tuck offered his own answer to the question of whether it’s art or just scribbles: “Any notion of ‘art’ by [other] animals is essentially anthropomorphic,” he said. “It starts to raise very interesting questions about the nature of human art.”
The bigger question, however, is whether any of these animals would be producing “art” if they’d been left in the wild, free to pursue their own interests.
We do know that dolphins enjoy producing “bubble” art – blowing rings of bubbles in the water, and then sometimes swimming through them. That sounds closer to play than to art – if there’s a difference.
Perhaps more to the point, though, is that human art is said by many psychologists to have developed out of our very human need to express something that gives us a sense of control over our lives, our environment, each other and the natural world around us.
The earliest paintings ever found in our own time are at the cave at Chauvet in Southern France. They date back about 30,000 years, and most of them are representations of the animals whom the people there lived around.
There are also a very few exaggerated paintings of pregnant women, clearly expressing a need to relate to what the artist perceived as the miracle of life.
Also laid around the cave are human skulls, which seem to indicate the growing preoccupation with death – a preoccupation that only haunts us more today than ever before.
Whether our fellow apes and other animals like elephants and dolphins share these anxieties is something we don’t know. Their art, at least, doesn’t indicate that they do.
* * *
The BBC has a TV piece on the exhibit.
What do you say? What’s your take on art by nonhuman animals? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.