Animal Magic
Surrealist painter, zoologist and broadcaster, Desmond Morris has always challenged received notions of art. Lucinda Bredin meets a polymath

According to Desmond Morris, it was a coup de foudre. "I walked into Room 2, the early Bronze Age room, in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, and saw these amazing pieces of pottery, extraordinary shapes that were so creative and imaginative that I fell in love with them instantaneously. It was the inventiveness of the way in which they would put little figures all the way around the rim of a bowl, which were all doing things such as making bread. It was like a strip cartoon of ancient life."

Now aged 91, Morris has been, variously, a zoologist, broadcaster, author and Surrealist painter – at one point, he was the director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, where he put on the first show of Yoko Ono's work. But it all began when, during a doctorate at Oxford on the reproductive behaviour of fish, he took a fork in the road and joined Granada TV to make programmes about animal behaviour.

One of Morris's most famous films, the origins of art, involved looking at the picture-making abilities of chimpanzees. One particular chimp, Congo, proved to be especially gifted and was given his own exhibition. As Morris explains, "The chimpanzee brain was just capable of making controlled patterns and doing it for no reason other than the pleasure in making a pattern. When artists such as Miró saw the paintings, they realised that the chimpanzee was struggling to create a visual pattern, and that this was the birth of art, not the images in the Lascaux caves. They were the adolescence of art. When Salvador Dalí was shown one of Congo's paintings, he famously said, 'The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal.'"

Morris is sitting in a near-empty sitting room in
North Oxford, in a house previously occupied by James Murray, the celebrated Victorian lexicographer. Three comfortable sofas remain, but Morris's fabled library
of 11,000 books has been packed and the final pieces
of his celebrated collection of antiquities are being catalogued to be offered in the Bonhams Antiquities sale in July. But it doesn't take much imagination to see what the room would have looked like. There are still a few glass cabinets remaining, filled with serried ranks
of small figurines, as well as the first Cypriot work he bought: a statue that he describes as a "very strange shape". As Morris recalls, "I saw it in a window – I didn't even know you could buy things this ancient – and it took a quarter of our entire bank account. But we bought it and that started my interest. I thought, what kind of
people, living 1,500 years BC, with none of our modern conveniences, produced this fascinating work of art?"

It started Morris off on a long study of the nature of art. This culminated in The Artistic Ape, which looked at the history of art and why people are creative. Where his account differs from Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art is that a trained zoologist such as Morris had never before examined the development of art from an anthropological angle. So, how did art begin? Morris leans forward enthusiastically: "It's all because we switched from eating fruits and nuts, which is a boring, repetitive job – it's munch, munch, munch – to hunting large animals. When we made that big leap forward, we had a new element: a social life, which was the feast. Suddenly there is a moment for great celebration. And the very first thing that happened – I'm guessing, of course – was that we started to decorate our bodies and the things around us. Out of that grew the visual arts and, of course, all the decorative objects that we still have, such as bowls and cups."

Morris's other revelation was that anthropologists had discovered that, before the pottery wheel arrived, most pottery was almost certainly made by women, as clay shards show that it was baked in the ovens alongside bread. As he points out, "It's absolutely typical, but as the pottery wheel was a piece of equipment, the men took over. So, pre-wheel pottery is female and post-wheel pottery is male. When I published my book, I actually referred to the artist as 'she', which got me into all sorts of trouble – archaeologists thought I'd gone crazy. But, as I pointed out, this art was made by a woman because the men were busy doing other things."

It was this fascination with expressions of humanity in clay pots that led Morris to put together a major collection of ancient Cypriot art. As he says, "I began collecting in 1967 and, for the next 20 years, my collection grew and grew. The head of the Cyprus Museum came to see me and asked me to publish it – a big challenge, as I'm not an archaeologist. But I set about it. I spent a couple of years doing nothing but archaeology, learning the jargon and the technical stuff, and produced this book which I'm still very pleased with. I did a thousand original drawings, took every photograph and designed every page – even the cover. It really was a labour of love."

Morris describes how the decoration of pottery provides insight into a whole world: "I even had a vessel that had a scene on it in which people were milking a deer – which is perfectly plausible." One vase or jar in particular that caught my attention has three painted panels – the aforementioned strip-cartoon effect – showing hunting scenes. A line of bearded goats are walking up a mountainside with a figure holding a crossbow and what looks like a dog on a leash. "Oh, my wife, Ramona, loved that bowl! When we bought it, it was covered in deposit. But as the restorer uncovered these marvellous scenes, I realised how important it was. I think this is the earliest depiction of the domestication of the dog. He is shown with a lead, collar and a curly tail, and he is in competition with the shaggy-coated wolf, which is bristling on the other side of the vase with a characteristically horizontal tail. It gives us an insight into how these people went hunting – with a herding dog and a hunting dog." What about the round spiral forms dotted around? "Those are horror vacui – fear of the void. Artists like to fill in everything. But isn't it astonishing that 6,000 years ago the domestication of the dog was being recorded on this pot...".

In the sale, there is also a series of Iranian Amlash female figures, which look like fertility objects with broad hips and pronounced buttocks – rather like the Venus of Willendorf in shape. "Yes, they display steatopygia, which you might today call the Kardashian syndrome. Some tribes did have this feature but, by and large, it died out as it became an encumbrance, and in the main was confined to Africa. It was a fatty deposit that protected the females from starvation. But it was also visually very dramatic. The strange thing is: why do these figures, found in Iran, have steatopygia? I'm guessing it's a feature of the prehistoric mother goddess and that they were used as lucky charms, carried to ensure pregnancy."

Morris is clearly reluctant to let some of the pieces go, but with his wife having died last year, he is off to Ireland to live near his son, Jason. And at least one piece will be going with him – that very first Bronze Age figure, bought in 1967. He sighs. "I find it completely fascinating, the way in which the human figure has been completely modified by the artist. I hope it doesn't sound pompous,
but these figures alert my aesthetic sense. If you don't have interesting objects around you, it doesn't extend your curiosity about creative shapes and patterns and colours and designs – and about the motivations behind ancient and tribal art being produced in the first place. We all need art around us."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Sale: Antiquities
Wednesday 3 July at 10am Enquiries: Francesca Hickin
+44 (0) 20 7468 8226
[email protected]


Related auctions