Art: Congo the chimpanzee

    Even Picasso was a fan. What makes the paintings of Congo the chimpanzee so beguiling, asks Waldemar Januszczak

    Having carefully examined Congo’s paintings, all of which might best be described as examples of lyrical abstract expressionism, I find myself assailed by doubts. I like Congo’s paintings. A couple of them I love. I am less sure of the output of the show’s gorilla. And not much taken with the orangutan’s pictures, either. But in all their cases, something of interest is undoubtedly being attempted, and for the whole show the feeling persists that the lessons being taught here pertain not only to monkeys, but also to us.

    Readers with long memories may actually remember Congo from his television appearances in the late 1950s, when he was the star turn on Zootime, an animal magazine show presented live from London Zoo by the energetic and prematurely balding Desmond Morris. Morris has since revealed himself to be a considerable British eccentric; to avoid seeing the awful surrealist pastiches he now paints, I will cross over many roads. Back in the era of Zootime, however, he seemed merely to be an enthusiastic TV animal-lover.

    Apparently, the experiments with Congo began by accident. One day, Congo picked up a pencil and drew a line. Then he drew more, until it was clear to Morris that the chimp’s actions were deliberate. After a short drawing phase, it was decided to move him on to painting. Morris had a baby’s highchair and tray adapted to create a seating arrangement at which Congo could work. There are photographs of Congo in action, in which particular attention is drawn to the grip with which he held the brush. It’s similar to the way you or I might hold a pen, and was absolutely Congo’s invention, apparently. If so, that is already a remarkable development.

    Congo would be given a piece of paper and, in conditions of considerable concentration, would begin painting. The choice of colours was his, red being a particular favourite, blue being a colour he disliked. Fascinatingly, if you tried to take a picture away from Congo before he had finished with it, he would scream and throw fits. However, if he considered the picture done, no amount of cajoling would persuade him to continue. The master’s work was complete. That was that.

    The results have been placed in functional wooden frames and hung in a line in the no-frills exhibition box of the Mayor Gallery. But not even this charmless presentation can dim the disquieting beauty of Congo’s best pictures. They shine off the walls like stained glass. There’s a cracker called Composition on White Card, painted on August 17, 1958, which is dramatically, even shockingly, sparse. An audacious pink splodge at the centre plays a delicate game of tag across the paper with a couple of different blues. That’s it. And it really works. For Congo to have finished this picture as he finished it — for a monkey to be this minimal — is deeply disconcerting.

    In the next room, Composition on Buff Paper, painted on October 31, 1957, is perhaps Congo’s masterpiece. Built compositionally around a central expanse of Congo’s beloved crimson, it features an array of blacks and pale greens soaring around the red like vultures around a mountain. The mood is pure Kandinsky, the achievement profound.

    Not all of Congo’s paintings get it as right as this. His range of painting gestures is narrow: the brush has a tendency to go round and round. He is as guilty as any monkey might be of overdoing things, and most of the paintings lack the specific character of the ones I have described. But the display never stops being remarkable. What is really spooky is the care Congo always brings to working within the paper. Only rarely does the brush stray over the edge. And he clearly understands the notion of balance, too. If a pink has a blue on one side of it, and needs another blue on the other side, he will add one. The absence of muddiness, of colours mixed to sludge through mindless scrubbing, is also spectacular. When it comes to pigments, Congo is a purist.

    So much so that there is some small room for doubt here about the role played by Morris himself. It seems that although the paintings were made for the Zootime programme — and later exhibited at the ICA, no less — Congo was not often filmed painting them, because the studio activity put him off. Morris’s experiments were mostly conducted away from the camera. Which is a shame. Not for a moment do I question the authenticity of the images, or the methods used to produce them, but it would have been interesting to see the extent of Morris’s involvement in important aesthetic matters such as the choice of coloured paper for Congo to work on. This use of red, orange, green paper has a considerable decorative impact on the final image. Congo may have selected the colours, but who came up with the original wheeze of using impactful coloured paper? How much guidance was Congo receiving? I ask only because this intriguing show could profitably have been bigger, fuller, packed with more information, and might even have included an episode or two of Zootime to complete the context.

    I read, too, that Picasso was a collector of Congo’s work. This does not surprise me. The notion of a painting monkey would have appealed to the devil in him. What’s more, Congo, as an ape, could not reasonably have mounted any sort of challenge to the ultracompetitive Picasso’s self- esteem. Morris tells an excellent story of a journalist asking Picasso his opinion of Congo’s work. Picasso left the room and returned, his arms swinging like an ape’s and clutching his Congo painting, then jumped on the journalist and bit him. Artists and monkeys are brothers in arms, seemed to be the message. On a similar tack, Salvador Dali is said to have quipped: “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal.”

    Apart from Congo, there are works on show by Betsy, another chimpanzee, at Baltimore Zoo, a gorilla called Sophie and Alexander the orang-utan. With so few examples included, it is difficult to come to any worthwhile conclusions about these other simian maestros, though certainly it is surprising to see how fragile and even nervous are the touches of the huge gorilla. Alexander, meanwhile, is the only exhibitor whose paintings have a strong horizontal emphasis. Perhaps this is because he paints hanging by one arm from the canvas.

    Morris has attempted to give the display a truly gigantic story line by insisting on the importance of ape art to our general understanding of the aesthetic impulse. “It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists,” he writes, “that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.”

    If that were so, then this would count as one of the most important exhibitions anyone has ever put on. I am moved to see it the other way round, from the point of view of the visitor, not the creator: confronted by a pleasing assortment of abstract shapes, we humans have a wondrous ability to find meaning in them and to gain pleasure from them. Art, after all, is only as important as its audience.