Grant Museum of Zoology welcomes Art by Animals to University College London

By Richard Moss | 25 January 2012
A photo of an abstract yellow, blue and white painting
A chimpanzee finger painting called Digit Master
Exhibition: Art by Animals, Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London, February 1 – April 13 2012

Since the mid-1950s, zoos have used art and painting as a leisure activity for animals, and the largely abstract resultant offerings have even made occasional forays into in the heady world of galleries.

Artworks by a chimp called Congo sold for $26,000 in a New York auction room in 2005 and zoo shops the world over regularly sell artworks (albeit at rather more modest rates) by a menagerie of animals ranging from elephants to komodo dragons.

Congo had form. After TV appearances and a solo show at the ICA in London in the late 1950s, Salvador Dali was moved to declare that “the hand of the chimpanzee is quasi human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal.”

Now London’s Grant Museum of Zoology is mounting what it believes to be the first multi-species "group exhibition" of paintings by a range of animals including elephants and apes.

Art by Animals aims to ask visitors whether animals can be creative and make art, and why some animal creations are considered valuable and creative while others are dismissed as meaningless.

At the Grant, animal specimens and historical documentation are on hand to help visitors place these abstracts in context.

"Whether this is actually art is the big question," says Jack Ashby, the museum manager.

"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.

"Ape art is often compared to that of two or three-year-old children in the 'scribble stage'."

Those who enjoy a bit of form and shape to their paintings may be drawn to a piece by an elephant called Boon Me.

The former Thai logging elephant has produced a reasonable rendering of a flowerpot capable of gracing many a front room – or gallery.

Elsewhere, a tiny finger painting by a chimpanzee is said to be a "joyful work" in which the sensation of moving the paint is "clearly seen to be a pleasurable one".

Co-curator Mike Tuck, a graduate of the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, says the show is an 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 believes.

  • Art by Animals is part of the Humanimals Season at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology. Open Monday-Friday 1pm-5pm. Admission free.
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