Congo, the Late Chimpanzee Painter Whose Works Have Sold for Thousands, Will Have a Solo Show at a Respected London Gallery

The show, the largest ever dedicated to the monkey Matisse, will feature 55 paintings and drawings.

Congo painting, 1957.

Detractors say the splashiest examples of abstract art look like they were done by a monkey. But collectors go ape for them.

This winter, a collection going on view in London is giving new meaning to these expressions. 

Or actually, a not-so-new meaning: The 55 paintings and drawings are by Congo, a chimpanzee who prolifically churned out abstract art for three years in the late 1950s. Their showing at the highly regarded Mayor Gallery this December marks the largest show to date by an artist who is considered to the Picasso of the simian world. (The real Picasso purportedly is said to have hung a Congo canvas in his studio.)

The collection belongs to Desmond Morris, a zoologist and painter himself who first put a pencil in Congo’s hand in 1956 while studying the creative habits of apes. Morris, now 91, studied the chimp for three years, during which time Congo produced over 400 works.

Congo, <i>30th Painting Session 11th December </i> (1957). Courtesy of Mayor Gallery.

Congo, 30th Painting Session 11th December (1957). Courtesy of Mayor Gallery.

The researcher worked with a number of chimpanzees at this time. None, however, were quite as accomplished as Congo.

“No other apes were controlling the mark making and varying the patterns as he was,” Morris explains in a statement. “I originally picked Congo out as one of the more boisterous at the zoo and felt that his strong personality would respond well to focused periods of working together.”

What started out as scribbly lines and splotches of paint soon turned into carefully crafted compositions that demonstrated a formal logic without having an obvious analog to the real world. Just as Pollack, de Kooning, and Kline were exploring the limits of pictorial abstraction, so too was a three-year-old chimpanzee.

Congo with Desmond Morris, 1957.

Congo with Desmond Morris, 1957.

Morris’s findings were collected in his seminal 1967 book The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal. Congo died from tuberculous in 1964 at the age of 10.

“I now would rather that the paintings and drawings be made available to other collectors, to whom I hope they will bring as much pleasure as they have to me,” says Morris of his decision to part with his collection now. (The majority of Congo’s works were sold in 1957 after appearing in the Morris-curated exhibition “Paintings by Chimpanzees” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.)

He’s holding onto one painting, though: Split Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot. The red, black, and yellow canvas from 1957 marked the first time Congo altered his classic fanned out pattern—a gesture apes make when spreading out leaves for a nest—in the name of composition. In other words, it was the first time Congo made a purely artistic decision.

“Congo’s ability to make a controlled abstract pattern and then to vary it in different ways meant that inside the ape brain there was already an aesthetic sense—very primitive but nevertheless present in a non-human species,” Morris tells artnet News over email. “Watching him paint was like witnessing the birth of art.”

Desmond Morris with Congo's painting <i>Split-Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot</i> (1957).

Desmond Morris with Congo’s painting Split-Fan Pattern with Central Black Spot (1957).

This isn’t the first time Mayor Gallery has shown Congo’s works. In 2005, a handful of the chimp’s creations were exhibited alongside those of two other primates in a show called “Ape Artists of the 50s.” Earlier that same year, a trio of Congo paintings sold for over $25,000 in total at a Bonham’s auction, exceeding estimates 20-times over and outpricing lots from Warhol and Renoir.  

For animal art enthusiasts, the new show is a rare opportunity to purchase a piece by one of the world’s most well-regarded non-human artists. Also available at the show is a limited edition Catalogue Raisonné indexing the chimp’s oeuvre. 

Congo, <i>8th Painting Session 17, June 1957</i> (1957). Courtesy of Mayor Gallery.

Congo, 8th Painting Session 17, June 1957 (1957). Courtesy of Mayor Gallery.

“Congo the Chimpanzee: The Birth of Art” will be on view at Mayor Gallery December 3-19, 2019.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics