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Kazimir Malevich

Mayfair gallery unveiling show, titled “Ape artists of the 1950s”

Dolphins, horses, dogs and elephants are redefining the notion of “art brut”

A venerable Mayfair art gallery is unveiling “Ape artists of the 1950s”, a show of paintings by two chimpanzees, a gorilla and an orang-utan this month. Some 30 works by Congo, Betsy, Sophie and Alexander are being shown at the Mayor Galley, each priced at around £4,000.

The works come from collectors who were persuaded to sell by the success of a Bonhams’ Modern and contemporary art sale in May, says Mayor Gallery director Andrew Murray. That sale included work by Congo the chimp: three Untitled Abstract pieces from 1954, estimated at £600/800, which sold for £14,000.

The great apes’ success at Bonhams has encouraged a Lithuanian aquarium to sell watercolours by two dolphins, Gabi and Premja, for £200 each, according to the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph.

Congo originals have a few influential fans, and early collectors include Picasso, the Duke of Edinburgh and Miró—who swapped two of his own sketches for one piece of monkey-work. This certainly boosted the chimpanzee’s profile, just as Peggy Guggenheim’s championing of Jackson Pollock did wonders for the value of that Abstract Expressionist’s work.

While the price at the Bonhams sale was the highest ever paid for one lot of animal “art” it is peanuts compared to the $100,000 which Ruby, an elephant from the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, once earned in a year. The work of seven Thai elephants also did well at Christie’s in March 2000, when 50 of their paintings raised more than $30,000. Other species chomping at the bit include a horse called Cholla whose watercolours have sold for up to $900.

The first display of “animal art” was held at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art in 1957. The show, “Paintings by chimpanzees” was curated by Desmond Morris, a surrealist painter, popular zoologist and bestselling author of The naked ape. Mr Morris is currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Congo’s works.

In the 50s you could dismiss an object by saying “a monkey could do that”. In 2000, polaroid photos taken by Mikki, a seven-year-old chimpanzee, were exhibited at the Russian pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Even dogs are having their day: a Jack-Russell Terrier called Tillamook Cheddar has had six solo exhibitions in her native New York (The Art Newspaper, No.145, p.29), as well as shows in Belgium and Holland, making her the most successful living animal painter. Titles of her exhibitions include “Tillamook Cheddar, master in canine art” and “Collarobations”. Like most other animal artists, Ms Cheddar can sniff out a juicy profit; in 2004 Tillie Ltd. opened in Brooklyn, selling oil paintings, etchings, t-shirts and limited edition bags of dog food for $100.

Ape artists of the 1950s, until 14 October,

Mayor Gallery, 22a Cork Street, London, W1S

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is it a Miró? Is it a Malevich? No, it’s a monkey!'