‘Naked Ape’ author Desmond Morris leads a double life as surrealism’s last survivor

Detail from Morris's painting The Huntress 1999
Detail from Morris's painting The Huntress 1999 Credit: Courtesy The Redfern Gallery

On October 19 1964, the Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miró arrived at the gates of London Zoo in a chauffeur-driven car, intent on acquiring a work by an abstract-painting chimpanzee named Congo.

Desmond Morris, the zoo’s curator of mammals, who had conceived the experiment in which the primate took up brushes and paint, was an artist himself and a great admirer of Miró. He was on tenterhooks at the prospect of meeting his hero, the man who, in 1931, had boasted of his intention to “destroy everything that exists in art”.

Morris was disconcerted, then, when the figure that stepped out of the car at Regent’s Park wasn’t the wild man of his imagination, but an elderly gentleman, “in a quietly...

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