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Interview

'A Neo Romantic Necrophiliac'

That's what a critic friend jokingly called her once. Others have mused in print about what Anjolie Ela Menon is doing in the thirteenth century (Europe, of course) We tried to get some answers.

Charubala Annuncio INTERVIEWS | 21 February 2003
'A Neo Romantic Necrophiliac'
'A Neo Romantic Necrophiliac'
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After a breathless 2002 when retrospectives of her work were held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai; Apparao Galleries, Chennai; Lalit Kala Academi, Delhi; and Chitrakala Parishad, Bangalore; Anjolie Ela Menon, 62 continues to look rather sprightly and raring to go. 2003 has started with a bang as she held The Sacred Prism II, the result of three years of work with Murano glass.

Now she returns with new paintings after over a decade of experimentation, revisiting her first love, the traditional expressions in oil on masonite. Before the end of February she will exhibit extensively at the Shridharni Gallery, Delhi. What we are told to expect is a "distillation of her work of 40 years" -- perhaps a pervading sense of deja vu with some paintings reminiscent of her earlier work, canvases awash with mawkish, figurative expressions. Of course, there's also the hope it will be different, with new strokes, more and braver forays into unfamiliar realms.

Born in 1940, Menon studied at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai followed by further studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1961-62 on a French Government scholarship. Since then she has lived and worked in India, England, the USA, Germany and the erstwhile USSR. She has had over thirty five solo shows in India, America, Russia, Germany, France and England. Her works have been acquired by several museums in India and abroad.

She has represented India at the Algiers Biennale, the Sao Paulo Biennale, and three Triennales in New Delhi. She had been invited by the British Council, the US State Department and the French Ministry of Culture to confer with leading artists in these countries. Menon has served on the advisory committee and the art purchase committee of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, where she was curator for a major exhibition of French Contemporary Art in 1996.

She was awarded the Padmashree and is on the board of trustees of Indira Gandhi National Center for Arts (IGNCA). A
book, Anjolie Ela Menon: Paintings in Private Collections, has been published on her life and work and films made on her for Doordarshan and CNN.

Menon lives in Delhi, is married to Raja Menon and has two sons and four grandchildren. She spoke with Charubala Annuncio at length on her work, her beliefs, her understanding of the art and the art market. Excerpts from the interview:

Charubala Annuncio: What does the Sacred Prism mean to you? What stage does it represent?

Anjolie Ela Menon: Sacred Prism II is a series of sculptures in glass made in Murano over the past 3 years. It represented a departure from painting and the challenge of working with the third dimension was immensely stimulating. Also the added dimension of light and its effect on multiple transparent surfaces was a revelation.

What have been your other experimentations with other media?

I experimented for a whole decade starting with painted objects, mostly retrieved junk resurrected. It was an attempt to demystify art and to introduce to Indian audiences the mantra that 'funny is serious'. This led me to the first experiments with kitsch - an attempt to engage with popular contemporary art forms and bridge the gap between 'high art' and 'low art'. An experiment with computers which resulted in an exhibition entitled Mutations was perhaps the first time an Indian artist had used computers to create images, achieving scale that was hitherto difficult to arrive at. The Murano experience has occurred simultaneously with these other digressions.

Whose work -- what -- has influenced these experiments and your work in general?

At different periods of my work I have been influenced by various painters from Modigliani to Shergill to Bosch to Rublyev to Freda Kablo to Magritte. I have always been inspired by films from Pudovkin to Ghatak but particularly by the films of Bergmann. The idea that dramas occur within and in the intimate framework of relationships is very seminal to my work. One's canvas does not have to encompass Cecil B'De Millean events to have significance, but can achieve magnitude through the isolated interactions of the human condition.

How has the process of creating itself changed over these years?

As a young woman my work was far more spontaneous both in conception and technique. I think that the fecundity of motherhood had a great effect on my work in the middle years - the raw emotion coalescing with experience into a symbolic mode. Experiments with different media followed and I entered a more cerebral phase with the understanding that the juxtaposition of visual images in illogical sequences could result in 'deconstructing' a painting to achieve unusual results that 'happy accidents' could open new vistas and that one was fortunate enough to be painting in an age where artists had already been liberated in terms of methods and materials. Anything was now grist for the mill of creativity.

You chose Souza to write about in Outlook. Why did you single him out? [Outlook had asked experts to choose one great from their field]

I chose to write about Souza because I valued him as a friend and as a great painter.

You are perceived as tremendously successful. How do you evaluate an artist's success? How does an artist become successful?

'Success' for an artist is very different from what it means to other people. Today, more than ever, success is judged in terms of material yardsticks but to an artist the transition from one phase to another, the establishment of a recognizable signature, the breaking of new ground, introducing new directions is far trickier than success in the market. That one follows the other is only incidental.

I think that my greatest success is in that my pioneering work with computers, kitsch and painted objects have led to movements in those directions with large followings - albeit some of this imitation remaining unacknowledged! Here I would like to say that even success that is evaluated in terms of the market has come very slowly - clocking up little milestones; working, always working. Ultimately BIG success is not instant, it is only the sum of small successes.

So do you see yourself selling like Tyeb Mehta?

No.

How much does it matter for Indian artists to sell well?

It has been important for our self-esteem, for our survival, to be able to sell at all and to sell well is only a progression of that. With the commodification of art, the reality is that (unfortunately) selling well is also a yardstick of achievement.

About fakes- could you make the same mistake as Hussain?

What were Hussain's mistakes?

[Apparently, recently, MF Hussain was shown three paintings -- a watercolour of a Marwari couple, a set of bulls, and a depiction of a scene in Kolkata -- by a Mumbai-based art-dealer and duly authenticated them as his creations. He was to recall later: "When I saw three copies of my work, I felt they were genuine. It did not take long to realise that I had been taken for a ride. I visited my friend Naresh Kumar who is a collector of my works, and found the original of my "Marwari couple" painting hanging in his living room. Then I recalled that he had bought the painting from me in the early 80s. My friend also told me that he had not passed on the painting to anybody ever since. I was convinced that the three paintings I had seen with the Mumbai art dealer were fake. What amazes me is that I could not distinguish the fakes of my own work.-- Ed]

In my case I have neither the time or energy to be detective in the case of the many fakes of my work floating about in the market. All I can warn would-be buyers is that they can consult me if they have a doubt about the provenance of a work of mine.

What do you think of artists as activists?

Activists come from all walks of life. As artists we are perhaps more sensitive, less corrupt - and therefore we find ourselves in the fray more often. I don't however endorse art as the medium for any message, for didacticism. The burning question is -- through Art, whom are we addressing? Like as not we are merely reiterating the messages to those who already believe, in other words, to ourselves. For instance in the case of Gujarat I found that many of us who were involved were merely speaking to each other whereas the important issue would have been to spread the message of communal harmony to those who did not believe.

Why is art unaffordable and the domain of a few?

It always has been - first the Church, then Royalty, the State, and now industrialists. Patronage always came from the rich. At least in this century there are brilliant reproductions, limited edition prints, video libraries whole museums on CD (so even the general public can experience art).

Do you envisage the art market getting so transparent and regularised that, say, I could take a bank loan and invest in a work of art?

Yes, eventually. At least blue chip is already here notionally with almost accurate evaluations for almost 50 Indian artists. What prevents banks from giving loans against art is the almost non-existent insurance for art in India. Without that how do they protect their collateral?

So what would be the best way for a person who wants to invest in art to go by?

It is difficult to say but one reliable way may be studying and comparing prices of, say, three consecutive annual catalogues of leading auction houses -- Sotheby's, Christie's and Bowrings. Also you could take the advice of some good galleries but you must mention that you want to make an investment. A good gallery will be able to predict some kind of of trajectory for a young artists.

Who dictates the art market?

This is something that is so intangible but there are certain factors - quality of course followed by visibility, to a certain extent being written about seriously, promotion by galleries/ a gallery and the artist's persona. Sometimes the artist's political views could influence people. Then there is chance -- being at the right place at the right time. In our generation there were very few artists in the field but today the base of pyramid is so huge that the crawl to the top is more arduous.

What would you consider your most significant achievements and contribution to art?

Showing women that they should hang in there, whatever the available excuses for quitting.

If you had to write the history of art in India where would you figure?

Much too soon to be doing that. It needs about 50 years before current affairs become history!

What -- which artists -- do you collect?

KG Subramanyam, Arpita Singh, Akhilesh, Laxma, Souza, Jamini, Ram Kumar, Rini Dhumal and many youngsters.

How can someone seriously interested go about learning art?

Join a class paint, paint, paint, live a lot, paint, see a lot, paint, read, go to 4 exhibitions a week, visit museums, travel by train, make mental frames of everything you look at, find objects troves, fall in love, dance, sing, run, paint. Walk barefoot in the sand, talk to people in the street, paint, have children, paint.

How do you respond to critics? Any special memories -- good or bad?

If they are bright and learned I accept what they say with gratitude. If they are stupid, I junk the stuff. If they are pretentious and pepper their prose with words like "paradigm", "construct" (the noun), "individuate" and "negotiate" - it sucks.

How much do you paint in a day? Your routine?

It depends - anything from 3 minutes to 16 hours a day.

Apart from painting, what else do you like doing? Reading, cooking, gardening, travelling ...

Reading, cooking, travelling. Not gardening -- I have brown fingers. Wandering around flea markets -- I know them all from Delhi to NY to Paris to London to Kiel to Bangkok. Going to the theatre (not musicals), listening to classical music: not ghazals or Gershwin, but to Dagar brothers or Kishori when she's not throwing a tantrum, to Bach, when I paint, or MD Ramanathan's old recordings, L. Subramaniam. Making Lego houses with my grandchildren or we all do drawings -- theirs are usually better than mine.

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