Congo 1954 - 1964 London Zoo, UK


"It is the work of Congo, not that of the prehistoric cave artists, that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.”

- Desmond Morris, 2005


Desmond Morris (b. 1924 Wiltshire, UK) the Surrealist artist and Zoologist, famously worked with Congo the chimpanzee from 1956-1959, observing and recording the ape’s interest in creating ‘art for art’s sake’ and sharing his findings with the public through books and television.


Chosen from London Zoo for his precocious personality, the Chimpanzee showed an enthusiasm and talent for the work, producing over 400 drawings in pastels, charcoal and paint. Approximately 70 paintings were created during what Morris describes as Congo’s ‘peak phase’, in which the chimp began to xperiment with balancing forms, creating repeated motifs and elaborating on what had become his familiar ‘fan’ pattern. Congo had autonomy over the colour palette and when he considered the work was ‘complete’. Morris saw this progress as evidence of primates’ – and therefore man’s - innate urge to make and play with visual patterns.


Morris, whose research methods were extremely rigorous, worked with a number of other apes over the years, but none exhibited Congo’s ability to focus.  “No other apes were controlling the mark making and varying the patterns as he was”. A selection of paintings from this period were exhibited at the ICA in 1957, with collectors including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Roland Penrose, Herbert Read and the Duke of Edinburgh. Desmond Morris’s The Biology of Art (1962) was the first book to deal with this topic followed by the seminal The Naked Ape (1967) which was translated into 29 languages and was listed among the top 100 best-sellers of all time.