The man who lived with monkeys – and what he learned from them

Gabriel Cornelius von Max established a colony of monkeys at his house by Starnberger Lake.

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Gabriel Cornelius von Max was, by all accounts, an extraordinary individual. The son of a prominent sculptor, he studied Eastern philosophy, parapsychology and anthropology in Prague during the 1850s but, in an attempt to give expression to a very particular spiritual vision, he turned to painting around 1860, winning early favour with the critics for powerful religious and domestic scenes.

Few artists capture so well the curiosity of the human subject faced with sickness, grief and death: one extraordinary painting in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek shows an elderly man in formal clothes, seated in a room that could be the study of any philosopher, the desk piled with papers around a particularly vivid memento mori of two skulls, one human, the other that of a large primate. The man is thoughtful, quiet, possibly melancholic – and on a low table next to his chair is the body of a woman, the sheet that had recently covered her pulled back to reveal the beautiful, perfectly white skin, the reddish-gold hair, the eyes that seem ready, at any moment, to open again in wonder.

Who is this man? A doctor? Someone more sinister? And what is his purpose here? No explanation can dispel the shock the painting generates, and this seems to me von Max’s intention: death is shocking but, in its way, so is beauty.

In his middle years, von Max established a colony of monkeys at his house by Starnberger Lake, where he lived with, and painted, his simian companions. They were allowed total freedom; some of his charges joined him and his wife Ernestine at the dinner table, while others played with dolls and toys around the house like human children.

One portrait shows a young monkey surrounded by anemones on what seems to be its birthday; in another, a monkey with great tufts of brown hair on either side of his face appears to have just bitten into a sour lemon, and his expression vividly conveys how bitter it tastes.

My own favourite is that of a young monkey perched on a chair at the nature philosopher’s table, staring into the face of a mounted skeleton of what could be a brother or a cousin. He shows no fear, only the same thoughtful curiosity that his human companion might feel. His hand is poised in such a way that he seems about to take up the pen on the table and add some subtle correction to the notebook left open on the desk.

Von Max is certainly a scientific mind, preoccupied with the latest ideas on evolution and comparative anatomy, but none of his paintings suggest any feeling of innate human superiority: we get the sense that he recognises that the monkeys possess ways of knowing and being that he does not share.

Did he bring these animals into his home in the hope of sharing that knowledge? Perhaps. But what remained a mystery to him, I suspect, was exactly what mystified them: the source of life; the sense that, though we know that all living things perish, something inscribed in the fabric of our bodies is eternal; those enigmas of beauty and death with which his work with human subjects so often engaged.

One beautifully simple study of a woman’s head is titled O Mensch! Gib acht! after Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, in which the philosopher reminds us that, no matter how much we learn about the phenomena of this world, being itself remains the deepest of mysteries, to human and simian alike.

This article appears in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit