The Story of Indian Art #14: Anjolie Ela Menon

A look at the life and work of Anjolie Ela Menon, one of India's leading contemporary artists who was awarded the Padma Shree in 2000.

Dissatisfaction is the source of growth – Anjolie Ela Menon

Anjolie Ela Menon is one of India’s leading contemporary artists. Her paintings are in several major collections. Most recently (2006), a major work “Yatra” was acquired by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, California. Her preferred medium is oil on masonite, though she has also worked in other media, including glass and water colour. She is a well known muralist. She was awarded the Padma Shree in 2000. She lives and works in New Delhi.

Renowned artist Anjolie Ela Menon

Early Menon

Born on 17 July 1940, in Burnpur, Bengal [now in West Bengal] India of mixed Bengali and American parentage, Anjolie went to Lawrence School, Lovedale in the Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu. By the age of 15, when she left school, she had already sold a few paintings. Thereafter, she briefly studied at the Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, Mumbai and later earned a degree in English Literature from Delhi University, where she studied at the famous women’s college, Miranda House. During this time, she was drawn to the works of Modigliani, and Indian painters, M F Husain and Amrita Shergil. At 18, she held a solo exhibition with fifty-three paintings of a variety of styles. Her creative brilliance got her a French Government scholarship to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1959 to 1961. Before returning home, she travelled extensively in Europe and West Asia studying Romanesque and Byzantine art.

Themes of Menon

She is best known for her religious-themed works, portraits, and nudes that incorporated a vibrant colour palette and were rendered in a variety of styles ranging from cubism to techniques that recalled the artists of the European Renaissance. In 1997 she, for the first time displayed non-figurative work, including Buddhist abstracts. She represented India at the Paris, Algiers, and São Paulo Biennales and at three Triennales in New Delhi.

Nude Eden Revisited by Anjolie Ela Menon

Throughout her career as a painter, Anjolie Ela Menon has regularly re-envisioned her role as an artist. Menon’s early canvases exhibited the varied influences of Van Gogh, the Expressionists, Modigliani, Amrita Sher-Gil, and M. F. Husain. Mainly portraits, these paintings, according to the artist, “were dominated by flat areas of thick bright colour, with sharp outlines that were painted ‘with the vigour and brashness of extreme youth’.” Menon admits that her work has undergone tremendous changes with every phase of her life and that as she has grown older, the narcissism of the early years has been transformed into nostalgia for the past.

Menon notes, “when repeated often enough, a motif becomes a symbol which in turn becomes a cliché; a cliché becomes an absurdity, a cartoon”. Therefore in 1992, she staged an exhibit of household chairs, trunks and cupboards, all painted with images appropriated from her own paintings. This radical recontextualization of her work constituted a pre-emptive strike by Menon to “remove art from its pedestal”. She continued the re-imagination of her corpus in her “Mutations” series of pentimenti works form 1996, in which Menon manipulated images from her best-known paintings on a computer, and over-painted the print-outs with acrylics and oils.

Celebrating Menon

Anjolie Ela Menon was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours, by the Government of India in 2000. Her most recent shows include ‘Menongitis-Three Generations of Art’ at Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi, in 2008; and ‘Gods and Others’ presented by Apparao Galleries at Admit One Gallery, New York, in 2000. In 1998, the Times of India organized a retrospective of her work at the Jehangir Art Gallery, and in 2002, another retrospective exhibition titled ‘Four Decades’ was held in Mumbai and in Bangalore. Anjolie Ela Menon has also been honoured with a six month solo show at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, featuring her large triptych entitled ‘Yatra’ in 2006.

Yatra by Anjolie Ela Menon

Yatra by Anjolie Ela Menon

Her work has been featured in several group exhibitions, including ‘Kalpana: Figurative Art in India’, presented by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) at Aicon Gallery, London, in 2009; ‘Mapping Memories – 2, Painted Travelogues of Bali and Burma’ at Gallery Threshold, New Delhi, in 2008; and ‘Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai’ at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, in 2001.

Seeing Menon

If you haven’t already, we urge you to introduce yourself to some of Anjolie Ela Menon’s most famous explorations here and here.

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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