Shades of a vibrant journey

On World Art Day, Jitha Karthikeyan looks at art’s long journey; the then and the now.
Art once strutted around in its finest attire, luring everyone with its charm.
Art once strutted around in its finest attire, luring everyone with its charm.Photo | Express

CHENNAI : What really is art? Is it the Tanjore painting you inherited from your grandmother? Or is it the splash of colours on a canvas that sold for millions, making your jaw drop to the ground with a thud? Could it be the lovely scenery that your child brought home from art class? It is all of this and more. On World Art Day, Jitha Karthikeyan looks at art’s long journey; the then and the now.


Art once strutted around in its finest attire, luring everyone with its charm. Nature, pretty women, endearing family portraits, divinity in its resplendent best — artists were preoccupied with these choices of beauty. If grandmaster Van Gogh painted the brilliance of sunflowers and fields of gold, Renoir painted luncheon parties and beautiful women on a lazy lakeside while Michelangelo busied himself with stories from the Bible at the Sistine Chapel. Back home, Raja Ravi Varma captured for eternity, exotic doe-eyed Indian women from noble households and deities that continue to bless us from calendars hung on our fading walls.

Contemporary times have snipped away these frills and fancies and beauty is no longer the priority; profundity and substance are. Doesn’t matter if the human form is contorted beyond recognition of the species it belongs to, or if a single line in red is proclaimed a masterpiece. What ideas coursed through the veins of the creator whilst producing this, is what counts. Pleasing visuals today go beyond the skills of composition to narrate their layers of meaning.


A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Present-day artists may not agree. For, it is the title of their artworks that arouses one’s curiosity, sometimes necessitating a quick search of the dictionary.

A visit to any art museum that houses artworks from another century may be taxing on one’s feet and weary to one’s eyes on encountering too much allure, but it never challenges your vocabulary. The title, generally, says it all. The Girl with A Pearl Earring by Vermeer, The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Water Lilies by Monet, The Mill by Rembrandt, Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma…. it couldn’t be simpler to understand or define.

And now, sample these — The Perversions of Empire: The Microphone Connections, Arrested Image of a Dream - Stone Wings (b), and Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet….these are titles of contemporary artworks that first, need to be interpreted and then, connected to the visual, with the latter effort failing at most times for an art-unfamiliar audience.

When art evolved from its perfect rendering of the world around it, and conceptual art took over, then it simply wasn’t enough to be plain and straight. The title had to be an artwork by itself — complex and indecipherable. Even the iconic Mona Lisa would not have been spared the tongue twisters today and would, in all probability, have been called ‘Time and Space in the delusion of a smile’!


We all know how arty art show openings are. There’s wine, there’s haute couture, there are artists dressed to rebel, there are critics with discerning eyes and yes, there’s the art.

Art exhibitions have always been around since the 18th century, though their nature has changed over the years. And what about the periods before? What did the Leonardo da Vincis and the Raphaels do with their masterpieces? Well, times were different then. Galleries and museums were unheard of. Art was usually commissioned by rich patrons. Monarchs demanded portraits, noblemen sought the same, along with items that pronounced their status thrown in alongside the main subject, and religious authorities paid for visual narratives from the scriptures, to further induce faith in the devotee. So, the unveiling of the commissioned artwork was only focused on the acceptance of the patrons, for it was their generosity that constituted the livelihood of the artists of yore.

Perhaps artists have progressed from working for privileged patrons to being able to create whatever they wanted. Democracy in art currently allows artists to boldly state, “Take it or leave it”. Or have these wealthy patrons from centuries ago merely transformed into the art collectors of today? Even when revelling in the success of an art show opening, isn’t the artist unknowingly still dependent on patronage? Perhaps some things don’t really change; they merely mould themselves with time.


The most welcomed change that art has seen in its evolution is the participation of women. As if art would corrupt an otherwise pure damsel, women were never allowed to study art nor encouraged to practise it. Ironically, the same society found nothing wrong with male artists using women as their muses, often even portraying them nude! Ever since these restrictions were broken, women stormed the arena and the world now boasts of many brilliant female artists although it must be admitted that gender equality about opportunities and pricing is still not a reality.


The practice of art back then could only mean two things — to paint or to sculpt. If you chose instead, to use performance as your medium, you would most likely land up in a drama troupe or the circus. Not even in your wildest dreams would you be called an artist.

Today, the tree of art has branched out into so many forms and shapes. You can perform, create videos, make installations, and use technological interventions to get your message across. And no one will ask you to join the circus! It’s the idea that matters. Material is immaterial.

On this special day for art, let us not just celebrate its purpose in our existence. Let us also acknowledge the long strides that artists have taken, from the darkness of prehistoric cave walls to the shimmering lights of art galleries. Happy World Art Day!

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The New Indian Express