Ever since I first saw it, I’ve been intrigued by a dreamlike surrealist painting by Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape and wondered if he’d ever visited Deia. I decided to find out.
Fifty years ago, the British zoologist Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape. The book, described by The Guardian as ‘career-defining, life-changing, collective-mentality-altering’ was an instant bestseller and serialised in The Daily Mirror.
Morris’s book was called The Naked Ape because humans are the only species of monkey or ape not covered in hair. He suggested that we lost our all-over body hair because this increased the pleasure of being touched, helping men and women bond more intensively. Morris also argued that female breasts evolved their rounded shape to become sexually appealing rather than to provide milk. As you might imagine, reducing women to sex objects didn’t go down too well in the militantly feminist mid-60s.
Men, however, would have been delighted to know that the human male has the biggest penis of all the apes.
Perhaps because of this emphasis on human sexuality, The Naked Ape was an instant bestseller, enabling Morris to move his family to a 27-room house in Malta. To date it has sold 20 million copies and been translated into 23 languages. But the book’s phenomenal success has overshadowed another aspect of Morris’s remarkable life.
Surrealism, Miro, chimpanzees
Desmond Morris claims to have no idea how and why he started painting but his first one-man show was in 1948, when he was 24. In 1950, he exhibited with Joan Miró, the Spanish surrealist and abstract painter who lived for many years just outside Palma. Morris’s own surrealist paintings of what he calls ‘biomorphs’ – curved shapes suggestive of nature – recall Miro’s own biomorphic forms. Although the landscape in which Morris places them is suggestive of Dali.
Dali himself supported Morris’s controversial 1957 exhibition of art made by chimpanzees at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. He recognised that Congo, one of the painting chimpanzees, was attempting to make a controlled pattern. Comparing Congo unfavourably to Jackson Pollock, Dali quipped ‘The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human. The hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal.’
Picasso was also sympathetic to Morris’s ‘zoological experiment on the roots of human art’. He had a painting by Congo in his collection. When a journalist asked why, Picasso bit him.
Dreaming on canvas – the last living surrealist
Now 89, Desmond Morris calls himself the ‘last living surrealist’. His paintings are increasingly highly-regarded and collected. Morris himself suggests that this is because ‘they think I’m going to conk out at any minute – which I probably am – [and] they are buying me up before my prices double.’
Despite Morris’s tongue in cheek take on his late-blooming recognition, it’s certainly true that he is finally being recognised as a fine surrealist painter. A recent BBC Four documentary described Morris as ‘By day, a rational scientist, writer and broadcaster with a mission to explain; by night, a painter of dreamlike images, which mystify even Morris himself…Every night, between 10pm and 4 in the morning, while the rest of us are dreaming in our beds, Desmond Morris dreams on canvas.’
It’s a lovely image that gets to the heart of the appeal of Morris’s painting for me. One of his paintings in particular, Disturbance in the Colony, has an especially dreamlike quality. Something about this painting, I think it was the title as much as the thing itself, suggested Deia to me.
Desmond Morris in Deia
I knew that legendary publisher Tom Maschler who commissioned The Naked Ape and was instrumental in its success was an early champion of Alan Sillitoe whose breakthrough 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was written in Soller. I wondered if Maschler had visited Mallorca and perhaps suggested Desmond Morris go to Deia.
After my Googling around failed to turn up any answers, I asked Jackie Waldren if there was a connection between Morris and Deia. I really should have gone straight to Jackie in the first place. This is what she told me.
‘An English man holding the book The Balearic Islands by Luis Pericot knocked on our door around this time some 30 plus years ago. He introduced himself and asked if the man who discovered the pot shown in a photograph in the book lived here. I said yes and asked him, his wife and young son to come in while I called my husband Bill. I didn’t connect with the man’s name until he and Bill were deeply involved in conversation and I suddenly asked his wife “Naked Ape Desmond Morris?”. She replied, “Yes indeed”. As geologists, paleontologists, surrealist painters and Aquarians, Bill and Desmond connected instantly. When we moved to Oxford, he threw us a welcome party and invited all the important people in archaeology. He also gave me a brilliant reference for the first job I ever got in Oxford. I’ll always remember those times.’
Thank you once again, Jackie.