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Japanese Performing Monkeys: Apes in Art & Culture

By Gemma Angel, on 8 October 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Apes in Art

For anyone interested in images of primates in the visual arts, Solly Zuckerman’s seminal book The Ape in Myth and Art is a must-read. Hidden in the back pages amidst the postscript is Ohara Koson’s print, Trained Monkey Looking at an Insect, somewhat inaccurately described as a “Chinese water colour of a monkey sniffing a flower, unknown artist.”  It is in fact a woodblock print of a trained Japanese macaque (a species better known for its preference for bathing in hot springs) looking at a bee, and can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.  Koson is one of the best known artists of the Japanese Shin Hanga or ‘new prints’ movement, and 257 of his prints are listed by the Hanga Gallery. But what of the ape subject who appears in this portrait?

Whilst the pink face is natural, the pink waistcoat certainly is not. As he is described as trained, it seems likely that Koson’s monkey is part of the tradition of Sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, which has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years. The concept is so ingrained in society that there exists a single noun, 猿回し, meaning ‘showman who trains performing monkeys’.

Apes in Museums

Whilst these performing monkeys were trained to mimic human behaviours on stage, Koson’s print depicts a tethered, costumed animal following its urge to be inquisitive – a natural, rather than trained, ‘human’ quality. Do we need to train monkeys to demonstrate human-like traits? As various primate species have been shown to use such complex behaviours as deceit and manipulation, as well as the ability to learn, play and communicate, I would say no. Yet, when exploring the representations of primates in UCL museums and collections, anthropomorphism arises as a clear theme. There are of course many examples of primate specimens, including baboons and macaques, mounted to reflect their natural behaviour in the Grant Museum of Zoology, but the presence of primates in UCL museums isn’t limited to the zoological collections. As well as the Art Museum’s trained macaque, at the Petrie Museum, there are figurines of baboons playing harps, drinking beer and even performing gymnastics.

From images of performing monkeys, to figurines depicting physical feats monkeys could never achieve, each museum contains objects invaluable to researchers interested in social attitudes towards primates. These objects provoke unexpected and interesting questions: for instance, why might Ancient Egyptians have decorated their homes with beer-drinking baboons? Look out for my next post to find out why…