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Anjolie Ela Menon: Enchanting Voyages

By Uma Prakash

Anjolie Ela Menon’s studio is the beginning of magical journeys. Here is where myth, reality, enigmatic people, animals and birds are woven into myriad charmed tales. Menon’s protagonists are usually ordinary people: she portrays them, in her inimitable style, with great sensitivity. Her art and her experiments, through its line and stunning colours, convey the wonder of magical realism. Her art is also her own voyage of self-discovery.

The paintings in this exhibition entitled Enchanting Voyage speak to this richness of life. “I lead an extremely peopled life and I am steeped in the complex rituals of Indian family life,” Menon says. “In the midst of this pandemonium I live alone … I paint.”

Anjolie Ela Menon is among India’s leading contemporary artists and with a significant international reputation. Her works are in many major museums. Menon (b.1940), who studied at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, earned a degree in English Literature from Delhi University and, on a French Government scholarship, studied fresco art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.

Her stay in Paris had a great impact on her art: the works of such artists as Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) greatly influenced her. She was also inspired by the sensitive, colourful paintings of Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, with whom she shared a studio in Paris. Another motivating force in her life then was her friend, the photographer Alain Peskine. Yet, during her stay in Paris, Menon feels that the films by Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007) and Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) had a far greater impact on her than any painter, past or present.

The writings of Andre Breton (1896–1966) and Marcel Proust (1871–1922) and the plays by Jean Genet (1910–1986) left a deep impression on her too. The Christian Romanesque, European church imagery, and the brilliance of a Byzantine palette have also caught her imagination over time, emerging in several of her works of priests, prophets and Madonnas to nudes.

Madonna and Christ frescos are interpreted with great panache in Menon’s paintings. They take the form of her favoured mother-and-child series such as Portrait and Behind the Arras. Both paintings capture different moods. In Portrait the intensity of the mother has not rubbed off on the son who is gleefully distracted by a balloon. Behind the Arras is layered with empathy for the trials of the mother who looks at her son with hope. Menon leaves it to the viewer to decide if the Madonna and Christ, or Krishna with his mother Yashoda, inspires her. But it goes far beyond that in its vision of the sexuality of the woman in Behind the Arras.

The translucent textures of all her protagonists are realized by using thin glazes on board. Her visible brushstrokes glow. Menon has become known too, for the luminous surface quality in her art: muted colours and faces with sad eyes maintain a mysterious and haunting quality as in Aditya. As a master of her medium she transports viewers to other worlds where energy explodes on the picture through her unique understanding of colour, from the densest of tones to whispers of grey. Her impeccably crafted, colourful narratives have a wide appeal.

Menon is a great painter of casual pleasures, of people doing little or nothing and doing it well and beautifully as in Aangan, in which a young girl is lost in her dreams, oblivious to the crow that has helped himself to the bowl of fruit. Menon has completed the painting with an architectural line that embraces the hustle and bustle of life; a woman sitting on a cycle rickshaw with a hen perched on her lap and a young man eyeing the young girl from afar.

Menon often subtly evokes that which is hinted at but not quite visually stated. She can make the most ordinary occasion look extraordinary. For example, there is a breathtaking sensuality in Reclining Nude whose sultry and well-endowed form is surrounded by innovative patterns and designs, fruit and a parrot. As the sexuality lingers, the delicate nuances of the erotic create a mystical visual appeal. Menon’s female forms are bold, almost perfect creatures. Through gentle brushstrokes she breathes life into her images, making women rise above the commonplace, attaining a dreamlike ethereal quality.

Anjolie Ela Menon’s appetite for experimentation is obvious in the different media she uses. She has painted images on rejected colonial furniture: chairs, tables, cupboards, and boxes taken from junk heaps. She has created computer-aided images of her works and worked on them with acrylic, oils, and inks. She was the first to use kitsch as she transferred images from calendar art and cinema hoardings and incorporated them into her own work. Menon also used Murano glass to create a wide range of exquisite glass. But easel painting remains her forte, and here she has complete control of her medium.

“In between this show and my last show I painted kitsch, worked with Murano glass and experimented with computer digital works. People have been rather derisive of painting and some people even went on to say that easel painting was dead. My exhibition is an indication that I am back at the easel. This is my medium. I am not in the least bit abashed with classical overtones of this collection, which has defined my oeuvre over the years, for which my which my work was best known,” says Menon.

Married to a gentleman from Kerala, Menon embraced the culture of that region and painted its stories. In Acolyte we travel to Kerala and see two versions of the same man in brown and gold. In this painting the influence of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) is apparent. Is this a painting of the same man at a different stage of his life as he moves from innocence to understanding to belief? He is a self-realized holy man and there is the feeling of waiting for his message of truth. While his face suggests that he is ready to share his knowledge, the position of his hands insinuates introspection. The man with his back to us clearly emphasizes the spine within which all the chakras are held. The background is gold, symbolic of the truth the Acolyte has seen. This is a portrait therefore of a vision, beautiful and symbolic.

In her The Party is Over the crow is left with the debris. Was it a happy and abundant party? Perhaps not, as there is no sense at all of any energy of the morning after. Even the crow looks the other way and the cold cup of tea tells its own story. We detect a sense of celebration with the flying balloons in the air and the empty chairs but the final impression is chaos. Is this picture a comment on life in our times? Is this a comment on vapid beach culture, where the solitary blue chair and blue balloon speak volume of the crowded tourists foreground?

Avanti speaks of the unknown of beautiful thoughts with the soft sensuality of lips with a hidden smile. Her long neck and almost ballerina-like posture transfixes the viewer, evoking memories of the famous Mona Lisa.

Menon’s paintings are full of suggestions and expectations: here a colourful revelation of animals mixing and merging is vision of a shepherd with his flock. The Gujjar has them wrapped around him and one fully expects the picture to come alive any moment. The man has a satisfied look and one is reminded of the shepherd awake with his flock at night. We wait for something like the star of Bethlehem to appear and lead the Gujjar onward.

But desolation is also evident in many of Menon’s paintings. A sense of loss appears in Kohima, which is a tantalizing piece that asks several questions. The eye travels from the brown-and-white goat and the black sheep posed provocatively looking the other way. What is the relationship between these two animals and the girl? The young woman is reflective of a Renaissance Madonna full of tenderness, love and pity. Emotions come through as she thinks on the brown-and-white colored goat that merges with the color of her flesh. There is a story in this picture. Is this goat a sacrificial goat or perhaps the woman in a deep dark world?

Anjolie Ela Menon’s works, in color or simple black and white and in oil on masonite board or canvas or on paper, and water-color are mesmerizing. Her stories captivate and reveal, taking us into her rich personal narratives and iconography. Menon’s narratives are truly rich and her people are eloquent protagonists, fixed forever in the mind’s eye.