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The Mechanics of Expression:
Donkeys, Humans, Monkeys, Cats and Elephants

The tradition of animal art goes back to 1910, when the painting "Et le soleil se coucha sur l'Adriatique" by the "excessivist" artist Joachim-Raphael Boronali from Genova was exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Boronali was in fact the Parisian donkey Lolo, who made the painting with his tail. (Cf. Warnod, 1910; Weiss, 1994, pp. 149-151, 304.)

An early instance of purely motoric, uncontrolled art by humans is found in Ellsworth Kelly's "Automatic Drawings" (1950). (Cf. Bois 1999, # 30-32, 44-75.) Arnulf Rainer's "Blindzeichnungen" are another case in point.

In the 1960's, abstract expressionist drawings and paintings by monkeys were fairly popular (cf. Morris, 1962; Whiten, 1976; Schretlen, n.d.). In 1979 Arnulf Rainer in fact tried to mimick a chimpansee's drawing efforts; he has acknowledged this chimpansee as a major influence on his subsequent work. Busch & Silver (1994) report extensively on cat art. Recently, the Asian elephant has made an impressive appearance on the scene (Komar et al., 2000).

The movements of tails, paws and trunks may be compared to the movements of Tinguely's
Méta-matics, and they yield similar randomized Lissajous figures. (Schretlen has used the Méta-matic owned by the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum to simulate monkey drawings.)


Assignment (Art History students)

Compare the Boronali hoax (organised by the art critic Roland Dorgelès) with Marcel Duchamp's submission for the 1917 Salon of the Society of Independent Artists in New York.

Assignment (A.I. students)

Write a program simulating monkey art. Also write simulations of cats, elephants, Arnulf Rainer, méta-matics. Discuss differences and commonalities.


"Apart from art created by man the artist, and apart from the art in the kingdoms of the minerals and the plants that surround him, there exists in nature an art of animals, of primitive man, of the child."

Nikolai Kulbin: "Garmoniia, i dissonans i tesnye sochetaniia v iskusstve i zhizni." ("Harmony, dissonance and close combinations in art and life.") Lecture at the All-Russian Congress of Artists, 30 December 1911. In: Trudy Vserossiiskogo sezda khudozhnikov v Petrograde, 36.


Yve-Alain Bois: Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948-1955. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1999.

Heather Busch and Burton Silver: Why Cats Paint; A Theory of Feline Aesthetics. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1994.

Vitaly Komar, Alex Melamid and Mia Fineman: When Elephants Paint. Harper & Collins, 2000.

Desmond Morris: The Biology of Art. London: Methuen & Co., 1962.

Arnulf Rainer: Blindzeichnungen. Köln: Wolfgang Hake Verlag, 1973.

Arnulf Rainer: Nachmalungen. Wien: Galerie Ulysses, 1979.

Arnulf Rainer: "Nachäffungen". In: Hirndrang. Salzburg: Galerie Welz, 1980.

Arnulf Rainer: "Gejammer." In: Arnulf Rainer: Bilder 1983 – 1985. München: Galerie Fred Jahn, 1986. (Cf. pp. 11/102.)

Ignace Schretlen: Over de wortels van de creativiteit. Onderzoek naar krabbels van mensapen en peuters: kunstje of oorsprong van kunst?

André Warnod: "Un âne chef d'école. Il expose aux "Indépendants" un tableau peint avec sa queue. Cet âne, il est vrai, est de Montmartre." Le Matin, March 28, 1910, p. 4.

Jeffrey Weiss: The popular culture of modern art. Picasso, Duchamp, and avant-gardism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

Andrew Whiten: "Primate perception and aesthetics." In: Don Brothwell: Beyond Aesthetics. Investigations into the nature of visual art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976, pp. 18–40.