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 took up art while still in school, and, by the time she was fifteen, had already sold a couple of paintings. Finding the J.J. School of Art academically stifling, in 1959, at the age of twenty, Menon departed India to study art in Europe on a scholarship from the French Government. There, she was influenced by her exposure to the techniques of medieval Christian artists. While at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art in Paris, she began to experiment with a muted palette of translucent colours, which she created by the repeated application of oil paint in thin glazes. Painting on hardboard, Menon enhanced the finely textured surface of her paintings by burnishing the finished work with a soft dry brush, creating a glow reminiscent of medieval icons. Menon utilized the characteristics of early Christian art – including the frontal perspective, the averted head, and the slight body elongation – but took the female nude as a frequent subject. The result is a dynamic relationship of the erotic and the melancholy. Menon has developed this iconography of distance and loss in her later works through her thematic depiction of black crows, empty chairs, windows, and hidden figures.
It is extremely difficult to compartmentalize Menon’s work, not only because she has been painting for so long, but because of the extreme changes that her oeuvre has constantly undergone. She notes that “dissatisfaction is the source of growth,” and encourages artists to “abandon known (and often acclaimed) ground for new territory”. The body of work she has produced bears testament to her disdain for categorization. Menon is more than happy to not fit into a single category and be termed a maverick who finds self-expression in an idiom out of context with the time and place in which she lives. She says “I am neither a didactic nor narrative painter. I am hardly concerned with events, though I like to lay my people bare – I like to bare them a bit beyond what is decent, sometimes ripping open a chest to reveal the heart beating within. Of course, there are many who have identified with the women I paint, especially those who are trapped or sitting alone on a chair, or those innocent ones with a newly-awakened sensuality, and those who are waiting.”
Menon also disapproves of reading only symbolism in her art. Threads, necklaces, kites, the little animals or draped cloth, transparent or opaque, are the accoutrements and trappings that accompany the figure in her work. These are no conscious attempts at symbolism, sometimes it is mere ornamentation, the essentially feminine need to embellish or embroider, at other times it is the need to accent or to focus on the colour for purely painterly reasons such as perspective or tension.
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 overpainted the print-outs with acrylics and oils. 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. Menon’s works have 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.