cat, dog or chimp – the battle for best animal art!

27 August 2010 § 3 Comments

I have recently seen some quite remarkable cat art. I should firstly make clear that when I say ‘cat art’ I actually mean art made by cats, rather than of cats. The paintings naturally, I suppose,  show a preponderance of expressionistic sweeping paw strokes together with pointillist dabbing. Varying in style from abstract through to abstract impressionism the paintings actually show a quite remarkable sense of colour and feeling for space. 

It was quite a revelation, bearing in mind that the only animal art I have seen before was by Congo the chimp (see later!). My revelation was courtesy of the wonderful book Why Cats Paint by Burton Silver & Heather Busch. Impressively illustrated with a broad selection of varied paintings by different cat ‘artists’ it is divided in to a number of chapters which investigate the phenomena of these talented felines. It includes the abstract expressionist Minnie, the trans-expressionist Bootsy as well as Ginger the neo-synthesist. There are critics though who feel that the book did not go far enough. Here are the thoughts of  Jon Torkelson: 

‘Influential feline artists are discussed and their work reprinted in glorious detail. There is, however, a strong bias towards the mainstream of cat art. Important, indeed vital, underground movements are completely ignored. The street art of alley cats is sadly overlooked, perhaps reflecting the authors deference to the curators of that ivory tower, the Museum of Non Primate Art. Also lacking is any serious discussion of Queer Theory, so vital in the deconstruction of any mammalian artistic representations. Yet in spite of these flaws, Why Cats Paint remains an important and influential volume that no connoisseur of feline aesthetics can afford to ignore. 

At this stage some of you may be a little sceptical but before you dismiss the talents of feline artists may I respectfully suggest that you take a look at the MONPA (the Museum of Non-Primate Art) web site. This covers topics like the history of feline art, uncovering fakes, discovering the latent talent in your own moggies and a list of upcoming exhibitions. There are also a couple of video clips showing a couple of pussy Picassos in full flow. I certainly learnt a lot including the existence of cat markings from the 5,000 year-old Aperia scrolls. All highly impressive and convincing. And yet… 

So can you see what it is yet? Yes, sadly it is all an elaborate hoax. From the book to the museum, website and the elaborately constructed history of the art it is all fake. I do have to admit that it was so cleverly done and with such excellent illustrations that I was briefly taken in by the whole thing. Oh, how I wish it was all true. How I tried to convince myself that it was! I longed to believe in a talented Tiddles dancing around his multi-coloured canvas, coat paint-spattered and crazy-eyed like some latter-day Jackson Pollock. Alas, it was not to be. But the book is still a great christmas gift! You can even buy its companion edition – Why Paint Cats? Fantastic! 

Tillamook Cheddar 2010

Of course anything that cats can do dogs can do better – and for real. Most famous is Tillamook Cheddar whose fame extends to an entry in Wikipedia and dozens of TV and media appearances. The art looks great too even if its production (as shown on youtube) involves a fair amount of DIA (Destruction In Art)! Also featured in a number of US publications and TV shows are the Shore Service Dogs (similar to Guide dogs in the UK). Trained to hold a brush between their teeth and mark a canvas the results are actually not dissimilar to those of Ginger the imaginary neo-synthesist. Here a video of ‘Sammy’ in full flow: 


Now on to Congo the painting chimp. Nope, not a hoax either. This is the genuine thing – a 100% genuine primate Picabia, a real monkey Matisse. With the encouragement of renowned zoologist (and quite talented) surrealist painter Desmond Morris Congo forged quite a lengthy and succesful career in the art world. This from Wikipedia: 

Desmond Morris first observed his abilities when the chimp was offered a pencil and paper at two years of age. Morris soon observed that the chimp would draw circles, and had a basic sense of composition in his drawings. He also showed the ability of symmetrical consistency between two sides of a sketch; when Morris drew a shape at one side of a piece of paper, Congo would balance the structure by making marks on the other half of the paper. Similarly, if a color on one side contained blue for example, he would add blue to the other side as well to keep balance. By the age of four, Congo had made 400 drawings and paintings. His style has been described as “lyrical abstract impressionism“. 

Pollock at work

His artistic career continued in leaps and bounds, so to speak. Picasso was a fan and had a painting hanging on the wall of his studio. Miro swapped two of his for one of Congo’s and Salvador Dali declared that Congo was human whilst Pollock was actually the animal! Other works have made their way to auction, the Artnet website revealing a reasonably robust record,the climax so far being at Bonhams in 2005 when three paintings sold for a remarkable £14,400 leading to all sorts of newspaper headlines (Art World Goes Wild, Chimp not a Chump and so on). I sadly missed bidding on one I spotted at Christie’s last year – the price a quite reasonable £750 – however I shall keep my eye open for the next one and will naturally be hoping to pick it up for something around a monkey*! 

* Cockney slang for £500 

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