Sher-Gil, Menon Artworks: Beyond Auction, Tales of Feminism

Sher-Gil and Menon’s art needs to live outside museums and art galleries, and in the minds of young Indians.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The 14-year-old looking at us is quite familiar: the rouge is awkward; the kohl botched; the lipstick on her puckered lips several shades wrong; passion, defiance and mischief shine out of her eyes. From her letters, we know she struggled with facial hair, and was obsessed with her own looks.

Amrita Sher-Gil had an incredible life. She studied in Florence, and aged just nineteen, became the only Asian to enter the Grand Salon, the most élite club of artists. Her personal choices were unconventional: she entered and left many relationships with women and men, apologising to no one for any of them.

At a time when women’s choices about their bodies and their selves are under assault as never before, it is particularly good to gaze again at the selfie – as we’d call it today –that the great Indian artist painted of herself in 1927, a magnificent insight into the fractured self-image of the modern teenage girl.

Sher-Gil and Menon’s art needs to live outside museums and art galleries, and in the minds of young Indians.
Self-portrait, by Amrita Sher-Gil. (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Menon and Sher-Gil Remind Us Of a Freer India

On 24 April in Mumbai, DAG Modern is auctioning Sher-Gil’s self-portrait. Works by Anjolie Ela Menon, another Indian artist who challenges traditional ways of seeing the body, will go under the hammer in StoryLtd’s online auction on 24-25 April.

Both Menon and Sher-Gil remind us that there is an India that doesn’t involve school principals bullying their students into covering up. The censoriousness has reached every corner of our lives. Remember the furore caused by Rupi Kaur’s photo-series called ‘Period’ in 2015? Instagram removed one of her photos featuring a fully-clothed Kaur with blood on her trousers and sheets, and claimed this natural marker of a women’s life was provocative.

Sher-Gil and Menon’s art needs to live outside museums and art galleries, and in the minds of young Indians.
(Photo Courtesy: Rupi Kaur)

Indeed, in the same year, Facebook barred Kaya Wright from a page for posting a “brelfie”, or breastfeeding selfie, which led to a global debate. Facebook finally issued a clarification that it allowed “brelfies” as long as there was no nipple in sight –although, male nipples, exhibited in every second sports photograph, are, of course, inoffensive.


Reclaiming Women’s Bodies and Their Rights Through Art

Artists like Sher-Gil and Menon not only reclaimed for Indian women their right to the body, but also redefined the gaze that met the flesh.

Menon proclaimed in 2015: “My female nudes counter the misogynistic gaze of male painters.” She likes to “lay my people bare… bare them a bit beyond what is decent.” Menon’s nudes, obviously, have no dearth of nipples. Her paintings like ‘Mid-day,’ ‘Mid Day II,’ and ‘Vandana With Madhavi’ highlight how nursing and nurturing a child is, an activity cutting across the class barriers.

Sher-Gil’s unabashed promiscuity outraged her contemporaries, but informed her art.

In 1934, Sher-Gil painted her iconic ‘Self-Portrait as a Tahitian,’ a frontal nude complete with her nipples. Her interest in the body began early, and it is to the credit of her family that it was not crushed. An 11-year old Sher-Gil is said to have risked expulsion by attempting to draw a nude in Santa Annunziata School of Art in Italy.
Sher-Gil and Menon’s art needs to live outside museums and art galleries, and in the minds of young Indians.
Amrita Shergill’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Tahitian’. (Photo Courtesy: Trivium Art History)

Menon’s probing of the maternal bodies and the mother-child bond lends itself to be juxtaposed with Sher-Gil’s exploration of unapologetic sexuality. Taken together, the two artists present a wholesome range of the representations of female body: mothers, sexual subjects, and goddesses.


Depicting Religious Violence

Menon’s work holds out lessons that go far beyond the body. One of her paintings up on the StoryLtd auction has a melange of dismembered bodies of cows and the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna – a visual prophecy, as it were, on the religious violence playing on the streets around us.

Sher-Gil’s work, too, speaks to the gamut of issues that confront urban Indians today, from loneliness to identity.

This is work that needs to live outside museums and art galleries, and in the minds of young Indians – Indians who will understand its message far better than any generation before them. The young India ought to engage with art and artists like Menon and Sher-Gil for their canvases hold up a mirror to contemporary realities and more. Even at the auctions, it is not enough to merely own a work of art – the tale it tells, deserves to be heard.


(The writer is Associate Fellow (Gender) at Observer Research Foundation. She can be reached @TedhiLakeer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Amrita Sher-Gil 

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