Monday, October 31, 2011

Primates featured in Art - part I, the Western World

In my last post I talked about primates making art.  Today, I want to talk about primates featured in artwork and how different cultures perceived (and maybe still do) perceive primates.

There is no shortage of paintings featuring primates and many come to mind.

They tell us about our history.  The painting below by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) depicts Prince Edward of Wales with a monkey.  The monkey is not represented realistically.  It has a striped tail, similar to that of ring-tailed lemurs and ears we often see in mythical creatures found in Gothic art, possibly ears of a dragon.  It was customary for foreign dignitaries to offer exotic animals to European royalty, so it is possible that the prince possessed a monkey at one time. In his book "Henry VIII: the king, his six wives and his court", Nick Ford specifies that the monkey the prince is holding is a guenon "which signifies wealth and exotic taste".

Kuntsmuseum collection, Basel, Switzerland

They also betray how religion influenced art and society.  In The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Catherine of Siena, Garofalo (1476-1559) placed a monkey at the foot of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  The monkey is small and his back is rounded as if he were shameful.  The most likely interpretation is that the monkey represents the animal instinct in humans which can be tamed and kept under control though the Christian faith.

Oil on wood - London National Gallery, UK

Monkeys and great apes were later represented to point out the arrogance of humans, especially artists and maybe also to remind us that we are not as noble as we think we are.  This is what Decamps (1803-1860) probably meant to do in Le Peintre Singe (The Monkey Painter).

Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

In Nineteen Century Europe, exotic animals were associated to wealth, but also to women of ill virtue.  It was not uncommon to see pictures of women with an exotic bird or a monkey they would have received as gifts from a rich lover.  Le Douanier Rousseau who liked to paint in Le Jardin des Plantes depicted two monkeys in love in an orange grove.  Is this something he saw in the parc?

Private collection

In more recent times, primates were also depicted as companions, such as in the two self portraits of Frieda Kahlo (1907-1954) and her pet monkey (who seems to have been a spider monkey).
1938 - self-portrait with a monkey - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Self-portrait with Bonito and a parrot - Private collection, USA

In part two, we will look at art featuring monkeys in other cultures.  Until then... cheerio!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Primate Art Making

When visiting Lascaux and admiring the beautiful rendition of horses, one cannot help wondering how primitive humans became such beautiful artists.  The paintings date back about 17,000 years; yet the people of Lascaux knew what they were doing.  For instance, they deliberately chose to use protruberances in the stone to add relief to the rumps of the creatures they were depicting.

Where does art come from?  Do we have an innate ability for it?  Can other creatures make art?  Could our primate cousins create art and deliberately choose to depict what they see or experience on paper?

A couple years ago, I visited with "Cheetah", a chimpanzee residing in Southern California and I bought a painting he made.  The strokes are very free and colorful.  Some are strong, others are light - and I must say the composition is not bad for monkey art.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when psychologists and primatologists teamed up to teach chimpanzees how to sign or use pictograms to communicate with humans, others set out to investigate the origins of art and decided the best way to go about it was to hand out a set of paint brushes to chimpanzees.   Centuries before, painters such as Teniers or Decamps, had portrayed the artist as a monkey to poke fun at the vanity of humans and of art in general.  This time, primates would be taken seriously!

Congo the Chimpanzee, and others like him, shook up the art world.  On August 14, 1954, Dr Desmond Morris published an article in the New Scientist magazine.  The sub-title of the article reads: "Hundreds of paintings and drawings by a young inhabitant of London Zoo are being analysed.  In their progress from simple to more complex patterns they strikingly resemble the scribblings of human infants, and already reveal the germ of visual composition".  In the article, Morris goes on to describe how Congo, who started drawing when he was a little over a year old, became fascinated by the marks he was making on paper and repeated the exercise with a lot of focus.  The lines and strokes filling the page made patterns.  When he graduated to painting, he proceeded with the same intensity to the point of screaming and throwing temper tantrums if his painting sessions had to be interrupted.  

In his book "Monkey Painting" Thierry Lenain relates the story of Nanni, a female chimpanzee at the Munich zoo who discovered the joy of drawing on her own. "On the table was the book in which the temperatures were recorded. The ever-bored Nanni took up the pencil one day and began scribbling in the book.  When she threatened to spoil the book with her doodlings, she was given the pencil the wrong way up; she noticed however, that her efforts produced no visible result and, after examining the pencil, realized the reason and turned it around".
Lenain explains how primates (mostly chimpanzees were used in these experiments) like patterns.  If given shapes, they would fill them up or draw around them to cover the page with lines.
The fan shape seems to be a recurring theme in those paintings and line drawings.  The primates would keep working until the page was covered with lines and shapes that made intricate compositions.

Personally, I love the finger drawings created by Baltimore Betsy.  

Lenain's conclusion is that since there is no intent to make art by the primates, their work cannot really be considered art.  At best it is a collection of sometimes well balanced markings that create the illusion of composition.

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