Artworks by by orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants will feature in an Art by Animals exhibition which opens today at the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London
The exhibition will include a painting of a bunch of flowers by the elephant Boon Me, formerly a logging elephant in Thailand, alongside a miniature finger painting by a chimp.
Since the mid-50s, zoos have used art and painting as a leisure activity for animals, while using the activities to raise funds for the zoo by selling the results. The first recorded occurrence of monkey paintings in European art dates back at least to the 17th century in European art, but it was with the rise of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s – with its emphasis on the act of mark making itself, and what it reveals about the artist’s subconscious – that art by animals began to be peercieved as anything other than a novelty.
The exhibition’s co-curator Mike Tuck, a graduate of the Slade Art School, said: ‘We believe the exhibition at the Grant Museum to be the first to exhibit multiple species’ paintings and to attempt to take a broad view of the phenomenon.’
‘Although it is fairly clear that any notion of art by animals is essentially anthropomorphic, it starts to raise very interesting questions about the nature of human art’, he added. Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, concurred: ‘Whether this is actually art is the big question. While individual elephants are trained to always paint the same thing, art produced by apes is a lot more creative and is almost undistinguishable from abstract art by humans that use similar techniques.’
Talking about one tiny chimpanzee painting, Mike Tuck said: ‘It was painted using his fingers and the marks are quite clear. To me it seems to be a very joyful work which suggests that the sensation of moving the paint was a pleasurable one. It is so close to the painting of a child.’
Animal art first captured the popular imagination with Granada TV’s Zoo Time, which began in 1956, and included chimps painting live. One chimp, ‘Congo’, even went on to have his own exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the late 50s. And, Salvador Dali was apparently so amazed by one of Congo’s canvases that he declared: ‘The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!’
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