A painting by an elephant of an elephant
(May 2003. With notes added below in March 2008 and April 2008.)
Elephants have been taught to paint by the Russian émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid 1 in part as a way to provide a living for elephants put out of work by the closing of the local timber industries and in part as a sophisticated and amusing art world project.
The elephants paint by gripping the brush with their trunk. A picture of Ramona painting is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Ramona painting.
Ramona is an Asian elephant (Elephas
in an elephant refuge in
was born in
Ramona’s paintings have
been sold at Christie’s auction
Figure 2. A painting by Ramona.
This is the very painting shown in process in the photograph in Figure 1. The painting seems to me to be a drawing of an elephant in profile looking to the right, just the way Ramona is facing in the photograph. The elephant’s trunk is in red and extends down to the bottom right of the painting. To the left of the trunk are an eye and mouth in purple. In the left center of the painting is the elephant’s large ear, also in purple.
The painting raises several interesting questions, among them:
Is the painting a picture of an elephant?
Is the painting a work of art?
Does Ramona know she is painting a picture (of an elephant)?
Is Ramona conscious? 4
Which of these questions are meaningful? Answerable?
would we know what the answer
is to any of the above? 5
Vitaly Komar and Alexander
Melamid, When Elephants Paint,
4. For interesting introductions to questions of animal consciousness and intelligence see the PBS Nature series on Inside the Animal Mind at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/animalmind and Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals by Lesley J. Rogers, Westview Press, 1998.
5. Thanks to Peter Kugel for his helpful suggestions.
Note added in March 2008.
With the appearance of Paya as a painter in Chiang Mai, Thailand (http://www.elephantart.com/catalog/default.php?cPath=63), and Hong, also in Chiang Mai (http://www.elephantart.com/catalog/default.php?cPath=69), the plot thickens.
Here is Paya at work:
Accordingto the website at www.elephantart.com (Asian Elephant & Conservation Project):
Paya has developed his own slow concise style of art making. More drawing than painting, he specializes in creating elephant heads. Paya is very slow and deliberate when working, but this can be expected as he creates the astonishing compositions that he does. With exacting control, Paya draws one slow deliberate line at a time.
Here is Hong with a
painting (and apparently with her mahout):
Here is Hong with a painting (and apparently with her mahout):
Hong with mahout and painting.
to the website at www.elephantart.com:
According to the website at www.elephantart.com:
Two years ago, Hong began painting with her mahout, Noi Rakchang, and has steadily developed her skills. After learning how to paint flowers, she moved on to more advanced paintings. She now has two specialties. One is an elephant holding flowers with her trunk, and the other is the Thai flag. An elephant with so much control and dexterity is capable of amazing work. Just for clarification, with these realistic figural works, the elephant is still the only one making the marks on the paper but the paintings are learned series of brushstrokes not Hong painting a still life on her own.
Note added in April 2008.
Here is a video from YouTube of an elephant painting a "self-portrait". (Click twice to view.)
An unidentified elephant painting an elephant.
There are many videos on YouTube of elephants painting. See http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=elephant+painting&search_type= .Here is a video of Hong painting. It contains very interesting footage of elephants and humans, including of Alexander Melamid, who helped start it all.
(With thanks to Caitlin O'Connor.)