At a time when sociological and anthropological debates raged over nature, nurture and evolution, painting primates were seen to provide a "zoology of aesthetics", dividing opinion between those who believed monkey art offered the key to aesthetic evolution and those who believed that it denigrated human art by reducing it to the level of animal behaviour. Somewhere between these two camps lay the smirking sceptics who revelled in the idea of modern art as a load of old "monkeys".
Whatever the humans thought, it was undoubtedly a golden age for ape art. A three-year study at London Zoo saw 400 paintings produced by the chimpanzee Congo, Sophie the gorilla explored the palette in Rotterdam, while the American artist Baltimore Betsy showed a predilection for finger painting. A zoo in Vienna showcased the artistic debut of two orang-utans and a pair of chimps, one of whom was "famous for the episodes of sexual arousal that accompanied his painting".
The culmination of this feverish artistic endeavour was the 1957 show, which provoked a firestorm of primate publicity. Herbert Read and Dali were inspired by the paintings and buyers fought over works (some of which ended up in Royal collections). A journalist who asked Picasso for his opinion was rewarded with a bite.
Next week, author Thierry Lenain returns to the ICA to open up the old debates about evolution and aesthetics when he discusses his new book Monkey Painting. Now Senior Lecturer in Art History, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art at the Universite Libre in Belgium, Lenain first became interested in the art of "non-human primates" when he was rejected for a lectureship in 1988. Finding himself unemployed, he decided to write a book about the subject. According to Lenain, primate "art" is not the random daubing sceptics might believe it to be. "The monkey looks at what he is doing and exerts a strong control on his gestures," he observes. "It is a playful, intelligent activity, even if it is devoid of symbolic intention."
Since Lenain was no biologist, his study didn't include either the field or laboratory work of the scientists in the 1950s and 60s. It did, however, include a bizarre trip to Switzerland to meet "Werner Muller, a music- hall artist working with chimpanzees who used to let the apes paint between shows to ease the boredom". Whiling away a weekend with Muller allowed Lenain to photograph Muller's collection of chimp paintings and, more importantly, have two precious days of close interaction with a young chimp, something he describes as a "deeply impressive, even unforgettable experience". Further research included a brief stay by a capuchin monkey at Lenain's apartment, which was "very fine," he says, although "he was not a born artist". "I had to give it back to its keepers after only two days to preserve what was left of the apartment," adds Lenain with a dash of Poirot-ish humour.
Thierry Lenain will be giving a talk at the ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) on 20 May at 7pm. `Monkey Painting' is published by Reaktion Books on 9 June
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