Congo, who began his art career the moment he happened to pick up a pencil, to become “a television celebrity in the late 1950s as the star of Zootime, an animal programme presented from the London Zoo by Desmond Morris, the zoologist and anthropologist. He became even more of a cause célèbre when the Institute of Contemporary Arts mounted a large exhibition of his work in 1957.
From 1956–1959, surrealist artist and zoologist Desmond Morris worked with a number of apes in his research but explains that none matched Congo’s apparent artistic instinct. “No other apes were controlling the mark making and varying the patterns as he was,” Morris says. “I originally picked Congo out as one of the more boisterous at the zoo and felt that his strong personality would respond well to to focused periods of working together.”
He chose Congo due to a period of observing and recording his interest in “creating art for art’s sake”. Morris offered Congo a pencil and card to draw on, which he did, and then paint and pastels, observing his inclination to draw circles and repeat motifs, such as a fan pattern. He also showed an ability to create basic compositions, showing understanding of symmetry and aesthetic balance. Morris saw this research as evidence of primates’ urge to make and play with visual patterns, especially shown by Congo’s enjoyment of the sessions.
Congo made around 400 artworks during the period. Congo ᴅɪᴇd in 1964, but Morris has since continued research into the subject, publishing The Artistic Ape in 2013, tracing “the evolution of human artistic endeavour over three million years”. His second book, The Naked Ape (1967), was translated into 29 languages and listed among the 100 best-selling books of all time. Meanwhile in 2005, auction house Bonhams sold three of Congo’s paintings for £14,400.
In 2019, 91-year-old Morris has decided to sell all but one of the paintings in his possession at a show at The Mayor Gallery in London. This new show will feature 55 of Congo’s paintings. Morris commented on his decision to sell all but one of his favourite paintings from the time, saying “I am holding onto the serious, scientific research notes that I made during my years working with Congo, but, at 91 years old, 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.”
Here are some masterpieces of Congo the chimpanzee: