UCL News


Art by Animals comes to London

27 January 2012

An exhibition featuring works of art from several species of animal, including paintings by elephants and apes, starts next week at UCL's Grant Museum of Zoology in collaboration with a graduate from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art.


A highlight of the exhibition is a painting of a flowerpot by the elephant Boon Mee who was formerly a logging elephant in Thailand. Art by Animals features art by elephants, orang-utans, gorillas and chimps and places their handiwork alongside animal specimens and historical documentation.

Since the mid-50s, zoos have used art and painting as a leisure activity for animals, also using the activities to raise funds for conservation or the zoo by selling the works.

Co-curator Mike Tuck, a graduate of the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, said: "We believe the exhibition at the Grant Museum to be the first to exhibit multiple species' paintings and to attempt to take a broad view of the phenomenon."

While many species in captivity have interacted with paint, the exhibition aims to ask visitors the question of whether animals can be creative and make art, and why some animal creations are considered valuable and creative, while others are dismissed as meaningless.

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

Will Tuck

Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, said: "Whether this is actually art is the big question. While individual elephants are trained to always paint the same thing, art produced by apes is a lot more creative and is almost indistinguishable 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'," he added.

Co-curator Will Tuck said: "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." 

Images of monkeys painting date back at least to the 17th century in European art, and possibly earlier, but it wasn't until the 1950s that the actual animal paintings became a serious subject.

This rise in popularity tied in with the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement in art, which started to look closely at the act of mark making itself, and what it reveals about the artist's subconscious. Within this newly emerging context the art of animals, particularly primates, took on a radically different meaning.

Animal art was first popularised by Granada TV's Zoo Time, which started in 1956. The programme, which was presented by zoologist and artist Desmond Morris, included chimps painting live. One regular was the individual "Congo", who went on have his own exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the late 50s, the catalogue for which is included in the UCL exhibition.

Salvador Dali was apparently so smitten with one of Congo's canvases that he declared: "The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!"

The exhibition features paintings gathered by co-curators Will and Mike Tuck from locations as varied as Samutprakarn Zoo, Thailand (elephants); Erie Zoo, Pennsylvania, USA (gorilla, orang-utan); Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri, USA (chimp); and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado, USA (orang-utan). The exhibition also includes specifically commissioned work from Erie Zoo.

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Talking about one tiny chimpanzee painting, Digit Master, Mike Tuck said: "It was painted using his fingers and the marks are quite clear. To me it seems to be a very joyful work which suggests that the sensation of moving the paint was a pleasurable one. It is so close to the painting of a child."

Art by Animals is part of the Humanimals Season at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, and runs from 1 February to 13 April 2012. The Museum is open to the public 1-5pm, Monday to Friday. Admission is free and there is no need to book.

Media contact: George Wigmore

Image: Digit Master by Bakhari (Chimp, Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri)


Slade School of Fine Art
UCL Grant Museum of Zoology