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Art and Women

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

“For most of history, ‘anonymous’ was a woman”

Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

History has always cherished Art, conceptualised around the idea of and about women. Despite markets and galleries being flooded with mesmerising poems, paintings and sculptures of their beauty; our collective history of art only has only seen a handful of women across periods of time. Yet, women have always played a significant character in an artist’s rendition, for example, Monalisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Olympia by Edouard Manet, Santhal Girl by Jamini Roy and Punjabi Lady by Pestonji Bomanji.

Men have dominated the creative and art landscape since time immemorial. Their art has represented women in different storylines, and it often responds to their own internalised interpretation of how women should be, behave and act.

These interpretations, in a generalising sweep, describe differing albeit fixated standards of beauty. Women are often shown occupied with household work - faceless and mundane - whereas, only a handful peek into the working woman's life, which mimes a contemporary society’s character.

It can also be safely observed that roles, images, descriptions, and features of women described in art differ from culture to culture and artist to artist.

To demonstrate, In paintings such as Mother and Child by Jamini Roy and Milk Maids by P.V. Dongare, it can be observed that the painters have tried to highlight the cultural attributions of women through their clothing and/or features, but both the paintings have contrasting narratives. Jamini Roy shows the nurturing and caring side of a woman but P.V Dongare exhibits women as workers and maids seen to be carrying milk pots.

In art history, the female body is one of the oldest and most commonly depicted motif. Female nudity has occupied significant space, discussion, and criticism in visual art. The European oil paintings have significantly included ‘nude’ women, with bodies without body hair. Hair here played a two-pronged albeit differing role for women and men. Where hair was and still is considered to besmirch female beauty, it was seen as a symbol of power and dominance for men; the bushier the beard or moustache, the more aggressive an image of a man.

Nude - in all its contrasting and diverse interpretations - has found comfort and plots in many artists’ narratives. One of the most revolutionary pioneering names in Indian modern art, Amrita Sher-Gil, created many paintings under the title ‘nude’ and similar descriptions as the European oil paintings.

The Nude, by Kenneth Clark maintains that “To be naked is to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art”. In reference to this, John Berger wrote in his book titled, Ways of Seeing, “A naked body is to be observed as an object to become a nude”. This objectification of the female body for the purpose of ‘art’ was very common during the 19th and 20th century.

Women have been predominantly featured in the art landscape for ages. Contemporarily speaking, their usage in the form of models has been a significant topic. Artists (men) have tried to paint their own version of an ideal woman, with ideal beauty standards across time periods, cultures and geographies. Artists’ have time and again tried to portray an ideal image to the masses and the masses have blindly harped onto this image of generalised beauty standards and norms.

Laxmi Chitragara Krishnapanna

As a diversion, Kshitindranath and Chitragara Krishnapanna exhibit contrasting images of goddess Lakshmi, where one confines to societal beauty standards and the other plays with cultural tones and interpretations.

Laxmi by Kshitindranath

Patriarchy, if one comes to think of it, has tied different lineages and periods of time - to provide us with similarities between contemporary and traditional art. In different forms of contemporary art such as films, theatre, music, paintings, and photographs, we still find leakages and retributions of age-old patriarchal rules and norms seen for example in women with thin waists, elongated necks, curly long eyelashes, plump lips, long hair and removed body hair. Painters from different ages and centuries have given an adjusted understanding of what an ‘ideal’ woman should look like. Women are, alas, still being portrayed as objects of speculation, correction, and desire.

The Indian cinema isn't deprived of these grievances either. From the song Zaroorat Hai from Man Mauji, 1962 to Chittiyan Kalaiyian from Roy, 2015, the viewpoint that women are desirable objects and are messengers of society’s idea of beauty is still very vehemently glorified. We need better representation, more honest stories and untainted narratives of honest, normal, unpainted women. We need to define a new ideal.

As Virginia Woolf mentioned that women do have the role of an anonymous character in history; women have for long been chained to patriarchal mindsets or societal expectations and this could be seen in both modern and contemporary art and remnants of historical narratives.

We are at an age, albeit digital one, where art and conversations around art influence and reach people faster than lightning. There is a desperation for better representation, considering the viewer has as much power to shape the dialogue as the painter of our history.

Written by Shreya Sharma