BOOKS: It is best not to try and explain the existence of genius but rather to just enjoy it

A Surrealist’s Journey

Review by Eoin O’Brien

Watching, by Desmond Morris, Can of Worms Press, 670 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-9895351619

Watching: Encounters with Humans and Other Animals was first published by Little Books in 2006 and, following on The Naked Ape, which sold 20 million copies, the book was popular with this innovative author’s wide following. However, its republication nearly two decades later raises the question as to what is different about the new edition. A note on the dust jacket provides a seemingly plausible explanation: “Watching is the updated and consolidated version of Desmond Morris’s acclaimed autobiography that was first published in  2006.” This simple description is very misleading. The present 670-page republication, although containing all eighty-two chapters from the original publication, differs by the addition of two brief addenda, “Postscript” and “Afterword”, in which the author composes a sad but courageous farewell to the world of realism. Before discussing these valedictory homilies, a few words on the book itself.

Morris declares his intention at the outset: “This is a book about the joys of watching the world. It is autobiographical, but it is not about me; it is about what I have observed.” And just what an observer he proved to be! Each chapter sparkles with astute observational wit and humour ‑ characteristics of the author’s often tongue-in-cheek style. One of the engaging features of this memoir is the stature of the personae who are centre stage: renowned artists, Nobel laureates, writers, poets, zoologists, behavioural scientists and, of course, surrealist innovators in painting, writing and cinematography enter these vignettes of observation to portray a vision, or postulate a scientific dictate, in clear language that is always informative and at times hilarious.

Prestigious mentors did not need long to realise that Morris was a youth of promise and they were keen to guide him on the career ladder to success. His early fascination with the microbes and fauna of Wiltshire, with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the poetry of ee cummings, and the paintings of Klee, Miró (whom he would later come to know personally), Ernst, Tanguy, and Conroy Maddox, (“the total surrealist”) are unusual sources of enjoyment for a maturing youth. He hankered to assist Conroy Maddox in building a solid brick house in which with each room would be filled with bricks. Not surprisingly these influential mentors led him irrevocably towards the “irrational, dreamlike world” of surrealism.

But young men need more than the intellectual pursuit of observing animals in their habitat: young women too soon became worthy subjects of observation, albeit not necessarily from a scientific viewpoint. The low period of military conscription to fulfil the postwar demands of national service was enlivened by the presence of the actress and pin-up Diana Dors, whom Morris persuades to donate “a selection of promotional photos of her in suitably alluring poses” to plaster on his locker doors. However, although “she had become a very special girl-friend of mine and had taught me a great deal about what we then called ‘necking’, she was now really too much for me …”

Dylan Thomas leaves a lasting impression by composing a poem ‑ he called it a “hymn” – to an unusually small man he had espied at a drunken party. “Skewering a large boiled potato with his fork, he raised it to his mouth like a BBC microphone and intoned into it: ‘Our midget which art in heaven, miniature be thy name …’ and, without pause, but playing adroitly with words, ended his homily with “For ever and ever, Tom Thumb”. This delightful episode left its mark on the ever-observant Morris, who resolved “to spend more time playing with words, juggling them like a verbal acrobat”.

Morris’s introduction to cinematography, a medium in which he would later excel, owed its origin to the film Un Chien Andalou directed by Buñuel and and scripted by him and Dalí, and coincided with his falling in love with a young Wiltshire woman, Ramona, whose radiant beauty became irresistible when her admirer learned that she was passionate about animals, even snakes. In their courtship they studied the behaviour of the beauty of the fauna and animals of Wiltshire which brought them to the cottage of the eccentric Dutch painter, Frans Baljon. They also made a surrealist film which earned an award because in Morris’s opinion the adjudicators did not understand it and thought it easier to praise than to justify denigration. After Ramona had obtained her degree at Oxford, the couple married on July 30th, 1952, an event remembered by all for the bridegroom’s faux pas declaring to the guests that “Tomorrow morning we will know the result of Ramona’s final examination”; the ensuing tumult did not permit the flustered bridegroom to explain that he was referring to the announcement of her anticipated success in her university degree. Indeed, Ramona is so inseparable from her husband’s artistic and scientific endeavours that she is, in all but name, a co-author of this memoir.

Morris’s zoological interests were influenced by some remarkable figures who wander through the pages of Watching with such nonchalance that is easy to overlook their stature in the worlds of science and art. The enigmatic Solly Zuckerman and his hated opponent Wilfred Le Gros Clark, the Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen, and Peter Medawar (who finds a place in my heart for his demolition of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis). The impact of a “fever dream” so dominated a moment of Morris’s life ‑ Conroy Maddox hung an illustrated version in his studio and it was the subject of Morris’s first article, “The Day the Animals Came” – that one wonders if he might have subscribed to Freud’s dream dependency theories.

The importance of Morris’s guiding principle of ‘observation’ is exemplified by the account of the near circumcision of the Nobel laureate, Konrad Lorenz (who claimed ‘there is madness in my method’) by his pet raven. While walking with his tame raven one afternoon, he kept the bird close to him by giving it pieces of raw meat from his pocket, but when Lorenz relieved himself in the hot afternoon, the raven assuming another delicacy was being extracted for consumption, swooped with a raucous cry to claim the coveted prize. The wounded scientist having sacrificed much foreskin was able, nonetheless, to apply the experience to advance his theory of ‘intention movements’, which are small, incipient actions that in the process of evolution can develop into exaggerated animal signals.

A moment of soul-searching provides an interesting glimpse of the integrity that dominates Morris’s observational quest to explain life and behaviour. Following a visit to film the pope in the Vatican, he was faced with a dilemma of conscience:

The date of our visit to Rome was 1977 and the Pope in question was the 80-year-old Pope Paul VI, who died the following year. What I did not know at the time was that this was the Pope who, against the strong urging of his specialist advisers, had issued an encyclical condemning all forms of contraception. As a biologist who has studied the tragic results of over-population, I am forced to say that I consider this act of his to have been a crime against humanity, based on his total misunderstanding of human evolution. But I don’t think that would have stopped me filming him. It is my job, as an observer of the human species, to study all aspects of our behaviour and to keep my studies completely objective. It would be ludicrous to study only the behaviour of people of whom I approved. Equally, it would be ludicrous for me to pretend that I do not have strong personal feelings.

Arguably, the most scientifically important (and endearing) event is presented in the chapter “Apes and the essence of art”. Morris had accidentally come across an obscure German article entitled “Figural preferences in the drawings of a chimpanzee”. This led him to wonder if Congo, his doting chimp, might be able to create art. Congo had become a celebrity star on Zootime, the television show that Morris had created when he was head of the Zoo TV and film unit and curator of mammals at London Zoo. He describes the moment: ‘I held out the pencil. His curiosity led him towards it. Gently I placed his fingers around it and rested the point on a piece of cardboard I had found. Then I let go. And as I did so, he moved his arm a little and then stopped. He stared at the card.’ After months of experimentation, an exhibition was arranged, and Congo’s paintings were greatly sought-after. Despite much controversy, the fact that a monkey might be able to express an artistic notion was a fascinating concept. Or as Morris put it: ‘The tide was beginning to turn. As the more serious journals began to comment, and the initial furore died down, it became clear that both in the scientific world and in the serious art world itself, many people were prepared to accept my experiments as a valid investigation.’ Encouragement came from unexpected people. Major artists, such as Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, showed great interest in the possibility of monkeys being able to create art. Miró, whom Morris admired greatly, came to see the paintings, and was so impressed that Morris gave him one of the few remaining works by Congo in his possession. The possibility of apes being capable of original expression remains open to question, or as Morris put it in modestly: “If human dignity was assailed by the ape achievements, then so be it. If ape and man were brought closer together by their common interest in basic aesthetics, so much the better. We could well do with a little less dignity when facing the rest of the animal world.” There is an interesting addendum to the perplexities of this behavioural conundrum: “Nearly half a century later, in 2005, Congo’s paintings made headlines for a second time. Three of them were out on sale by the major auction house of Bonhams in London. One of them was illustrated in the catalogue in colour alongside works by Renoir and Warhol. The estimate for the three together was £600-£800. The auctioneers were amazed when the bidding resulted in each painting being sold for £4,800.”

This review of Watching brings me to a poignant moment in my own life that led me to writing this essay. I was brought into the company of Desmond Morris by a series of curious circumstances that have left me wondering if so-called happenings of fate can be dismissed as mere attributes of chance.

Some weeks ago I escaped the years of imprisonment from COVID and was quietly enjoying the warmth of Portugal, when my friend Suzanne MacDougald phoned seeking a copy of a book I had co-authored in 2008 with the art historian Dickon Hall, entitled Nevill Johnson: Paint the smell of grass. Suzanne explained that she needed this urgently for her neighbour and friend, Desmond Morris, who had expressed admiration for the surrealism of Nevill Johnson’s painting and wished to know more about this enigmatic artist who had been one of my closest friends. I acquiesced promptly to her request for two reasons. Firstly, one does not trifle with Ms MacDougald, and, secondly, I was flattered that a surrealist artist of Desmond Morris’s stature shared my admiration for the work of  Nevill Johnson.

When I arrived back in Dublin I received another phone call from the indefatigable Suzanne, telling me that she had arranged a private viewing for me of Morris’s most recent surrealistic paintings in the DIVA Gallery in Dún Laoghaire. I was shown around the exhibition by Morris’s beautiful granddaughter, Tilly Morris. As I marvelled at the beauty and inventiveness of the surrealistic paintings on display, I learned that Tilly herself was an artist and winner of the 2020 Emerging Artist award from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and that she was managing director of the gallery, where she was concentrating on encouraging children to express themselves in art. Tilly then brought me to a room on the upper floor of the gallery, which I will call the “Blue Room” because the walls, papered in the deepest blue, provide a mesmerising background for numerous paintings. In addition to paintings there are shelves housing numerous memorabilia, including sculpture from Africa and artefacts from countries around the world, as well as shelves of books by and about Morris and there are showcases containing letters, notes, programmes and miscellaneous items relating to Morris and his work. In short, the room is a delightfully eclectic display of much of Morris’s enormous output (there are other collections in repositories in other countries). I was so absorbed perusing these fragments from a remarkable life that I did not notice that Tilly had returned until she coughed politely to draw my attention to her grandfather, who, shaking my hand, said that when he heard I was in the gallery had come to meet me.

Tilly slipped away and Desmond and I sat on a window seat for some hours discussing life, art, surrealism and the influences of artistic figures in our lives as though we had known each other for years. Miró, Attenborough, Medawar, Beckett, Picasso, Johnson, O’Doherty and many other literary and scientific personalities crowded into that wonderful discussion.

Morris expressed his belief that the true artist must aspire to freedom from prejudice, habit and tradition. When I remarked that Beckett had achieved purity of expression by escaping from the language of his upbringing, Morris brought me to one of the showcases in which African sculpture uninfluenced by any predecessor was sublime in its purity of expression. We discussed the philosophical meaning of life – could one escape philosophical considerations if one dared to cross the divide between realism and surrealism, abandoning the empiricism of rationality for the boundless potential of the unrestrained unconscious mind? We found common ground in science, Morris as the master of behavioural observation who maintained that many of the phenomena that constitute life, be they of microbial or animal (among whom humans can be included) status can often be solved by diligent scientific observation. He was troubled, however, by inexplicable occurrences that were more difficult to rationalise; how to explain, for example, walking on hot coals, or Uri Geller’s ability to bend steel implements, examples of which rested as proof of this impenetrable capability in one of the showcases across from where we sat.

At the end of our discussion Morris gave me a copy of Watching, with a generous inscription. This copy differs from the earlier book published in 2006 in a few dramatic ways.

In the eighty-second chapter entitled “Goodbye small planet”, written when the author was eighty-eight years old, he recounts how he and his wife ordered two fancy wicker coffins to be delivered to their Oxfordshire home in anticipation of their inevitable demise. When these were delivered by a transport company, the driver not knowing what they were, asked Morris to help him carry them into the house, a moment that provoked the philosophical utterance “that not many people get to be their own pall-bearers. Sadly, the next time my wicker work has to be moved, I won’t be able to help”.

The penultimate chapter of this recent version of Watching, entitled “Postscript”, opens with a sad declaration: “The previous chapter was written four years ago and, to my great surprise, at the age of 92, I am still here. … the specialists tell me that I have cancer, but I am adopting what the military call ‘masterly inactivity’ and studiously ignoring this unwelcome piece of information. I have subliminally instructed my immune system to do its job properly and to ignore the deceitful signals sent by the proliferating cells – signals that cleverly and falsely inform the surrounding tissue that they are perfectly normal and healthy.” He goes on to make a prescient observation which, being a doctor, I find attractive as a scientific proposition: “One day, when the medics have found a way of exposing this lie to our immune system, cancer will be conquered.”

In spite of this diagnosis and the death of his beloved wife after sixty-nine years of marriage, he has written nine books and painted over 700 new pictures in the past four years. He has now moved from England to live close to his family in Ireland, where he has found happiness and contentment. He expresses this with moving sincerity: “Living now in a small Irish village I have, for over a year, been enjoying a creative life in a new studio, surrounded by wonderfully warm and friendly Irish people with whom I fell a great affinity. They approach the trials of life with a deeply ingrained sense of humour, a love of the eccentric, and a cheerful disregard for the authorities that perfectly matches my own temperament.” Did that other great surrealist, Nevill Johnson, also from England, and so admired by Morris, not express similar sentiments when he wrote:  “Through its people, thronged as they were by dogma and tacitly in thrall to the hereafter, ran a maverick undertow; these folk laughed and winked like boys behind Godmaster’s back. Wit and a casual intelligence was the key to this society; today was fine – and tomorrow would be very welcome.”

Mulling over the experiences I have described I am left contemplating what to do when life throws the likes of me into the company of a genius? I think it best to heed the wise adage of Ernst Gombrich, who thought it best not to try and explain the existence of genius but rather to just enjoy it. And I might add – be grateful for the privilege of being able to establish a friendship.

Notes:  Desmond Morris was born in 1928. Educated at Birmingham and Oxford universities, he became the Curator of Mammals at London Zoo in 1959, a post he held for eight years. An accomplished artist, TV presenter, film-maker and writer, his books have been published in over thirty-six countries. In 1967 he published The Naked Ape, which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide and has changed the way we view our own species forever. In 1946, Morris joined the British army for two years of national service, becoming a lecturer in fine arts at the Chiseldon Army College in Wiltshire. After being demobilised in 1948, he held the first one-man show of his own paintings at the Swindon Arts Centre, and studied zoology at the University of Birmingham. In 1950 he held a surrealist art exhibition with Joan Miró at the London Gallery. He held many other exhibitions in later years. Also in 1950, he wrote and directed two surrealist films, Time Flower and The Butterfly and the Pin. In 1951 he began a doctorate at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford in animal behaviour. In 1954, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy for his work on the reproductive behaviour of the ten-spined stickleback.
The Dún Laoghaire Institute of Visual Arts (DIVA) is a newly renovated art centre, featuring teaching rooms, artist studios, exhibition spaces, and rooms for hire located right in the heart of Dún Laoghaire at 24 Mellifont Avenue. The gallery offers exciting creative activities and classes for children after school and weekend art classes covering a wide variety of different artistic themes and mediums. The galleries can be hired for independent or group exhibitions, and artist studios are also available for rental.

1/11/2022

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