‘Sakountala’ was her first major clay sculpture exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1888. Poet Kalidasa’s 5th century tale of Shakuntala signifies abandonment. King Dushyanta marries her, but forgets her when he’s put under a spell. When the spell breaks, he kneels at her feet and begs forgiveness. For this French sculptress, Shakuntala depicted her own destiny, her metaphysical search for her teacher-cum-lover who would not marry her. Her turbulent lifestyle and the ferocity of her emotions physically imprisoned her in a mental asylum for 30 years. I’d highlighted last week that sexuality was a factor in the career ambitions of three creative women (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/sex-or-talent-/1035877/0), but for this sculptress, her exalted inventive work broke barriers, paving the way for women artists to get due recognition in future.
Through the ages, art has displayed a gender bias against women. Today women express their personality and talent; global magazines honour the 100 most powerful women from different disciplines. Such acknowledgment of merit didn’t always happen so easily. Let me take you to 19th century Western Europe that experienced incredible waves of original art and culture. In my observation, the 1826 invention of photography by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce radically changed the idea of metaphor. Till then artists were compelled to depict realism. Photographic reproduction suddenly made artistic realism redundant. This jolt liberated the non-conformists among artists. Van Gogh was the first example of those who unconsciously painted from imagination. People labelled his work tache (stain) not art, and contradictions marked this period’s art when painters and sculptors started to deviate from realism.
My favourite sculptress, an irrepressible genius, continued the non-conformist tradition. She started sculpting at age 12, using family and domestic helps as models. Her control over clay modelling was astounding. Recognising her talent, her father, a state administrator, sent his family to Paris so she could be trained in sculpture. Ecole des Beaux Arts, the famous Parisian art school where I too have studied, did not allow women into their precincts then. Women as nude models could sit for hours inspiring male artists, but the opposite was totally unimaginable.