Of Chiaroscuro and the Myths we Live by

“He (the artist) ought to have ‘these powerful organs of expression’ – colour and chiaroscuro – entirely at his command, that he may use them in every possible form, as well as that he may do with the most perfect freedom…” – John Constable

As an artist of a kind – a writer in advertising – I have to constantly ask myself how best to use our skills and influence. After all, advertising is meant to influence beliefs and behavior.

These days, when the #MeToo storm has engulfed the advertising industry in India – as it has academia, media and politics – I have been thinking about how our industry has portrayed women in advertising through the ages. Where should we draw the line between creativity and decency, when and what kind of humour is out of place, how should the dynamic between men and women be depicted, knowing that many consumers take their cue from communication, especially when it becomes part of popular culture?

Unfortunately, most of us are brought up to think in conditioned, pre-ordained ways: women are physically weaker than men, so they must be weaker in spirit too and of course, they must be easy prey. Through the ages, we have been telling each other stories of women who have always been ‘victims’ either of circumstance, or worse, of destiny. Either way, it couldn’t be helped, you see.

Titian Rape of Europa
The Rape of Europa by Titian courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I am thinking of some of the paintings of the great Venetian artist, Titian, one of the Renaissance masters of chiaroscuro. He painted The Rape of Europa who was abducted and seduced by Zeus, who took the form of a bull. The symbolism is all too obvious. Titian has painted Europa turning back to look longingly at the life she is leaving behind with angelic cherubs flying around, as if to reassure her in some way. She is clearly in a bedraggled state, her arm waving a red stole-like fabric in the air, caught in the throes of the sudden abduction. According to the legend, she became Queen of Crete and, of course, a continent was named after her. But does that justify the actions of Zeus?

No. 914
Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Take another of Titian’s paintings, Tarquin and Lucretia. Tarquin, who has one of her arms in his grip, is ready to attack her with a knife. By resting his knee on the edge of the bed between her legs he has made it impossible for her to escape. He has nothing but rage in his eyes, while Lucretia looks at him in fear and horror, trying to push him back with her left hand.

This story dates back to a Roman legend from 509 BC. What was Lucretia’s recourse? To expose Tarquin, of course, and then to commit suicide. That act alone is said to have helped create the first Roman Empire.

How many empires have been built or conquered over the bodies of women? Countless, I am sure. They continue to this day, if you consider Harvey Weinstein and several other moguls in business; men who didn’t just lord over their empires but over the women whose careers they believed they helped launch.

Man dominating woman is as old as the land. After all, didn’t God create the first woman, Eve, from the rib of Adam, forever consigning her to be a part of him, his ‘property’?

We also have the story of Iphis and Ianthe in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where Lygdus who was otherwise known to live a frugal life and one of rectitude, tells his wife who is expecting a child:

“Two things, he said

I pray for – first, for thee an easy time

And next, for both, a boy! These chits of girls,

Too weak to earn their living, are but plagues

And burdens. Should the babe thou bearest be female,

Sorrowing though I speak

Her sentence, Heaven forgive me!

But she dies!”

Let’s travel now to my part of the world. To India, where thousands of girls continue to die each year and about which I have written elsewhere; many before they are even born. Where the Lygdus tale is all too familiar.

In India, we pride ourselves over our five millennia old civilization. Hinduism as a religion was born with the arrival of the Aryans in India around 1500 BC and it is one that believes in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. However, if you read some of the ancient Hindu myths, such as those in Hindu Myths, translated and introduced by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, a scholar of Indian Literature from Harvard and Oxford Universities, you will find several stories that treat women as “evil, wanton creatures”. They were considered a necessary evil, useful only in times when a prince’s or sage’s attention needed to be diverted, or seduced, or some equally frivolous activity as that.

Hindu Myths book

There are several incidents of rape, murder, incest, dismemberment and other kinds of violence here, enough to fill several Harvey Weinstein movies.

The creation story is the saddest. It is one of order turning into chaos. And at the heart of it is the story from the Rig Veda, one of the earliest Hindu scriptures, of a father committing incest with his daughter.

As Wendy says in the introduction:

“…the Hindu universe is a closed system, a ‘world-egg’ with a rigid shell, so that nothing is ever ‘created’ ex nihilo; rather, things are constantly rearranged, each put in its place, and by doing this… ordered life emerges from lifeless chaos.

….But against this Apollonian structure, there flows another, Dionysian, current in Indian thought which views the act of creation as the transformation of order into chaos.”

Women became goddesses only when they were consorts of the gods. Some of them were endowed with the shakti (power) to fight and slay demons. But for the most part, they were relegated to minor, supporting cast roles, if one were to extend the movie analogy of Weinstein-land.

However, it is not as if women didn’t go down fighting. Few and far between as they may appear, we do have stories of retribution. The great and tragic story of all time is, of course, of Medea. To seek revenge against her unfaithful husband, she murders their children and is banished from the land. Not a role model that women should follow, but such myths too exist.

There is yet another extraordinary story and one of a female artist that I was not familiar with, until now. Artemisia Gentileschi, a follower of Caravaggio, suffered the most horrific acts of male domination and violence – including by a fellow artist, Agostino Tassi – and is said to have fought back through words and paintings.

Judith beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Her famous painting of Judith beheading Holofernes could actually be interpreted as an allegorical depiction of Gentileschi’s own encounter with Agostino Tassi. He raped her when she was 19 years old, while he was hired by her father to teach her.

After a trial that lasted seven months in Rome, she was shamed and became well-known for the wrong reasons. But with paintbrush as her weapon, she went on to paint Susannah and the Elders, another well-known story of a woman’s private space being violated. Several others followed. She was not to be cowed.

Today, as many cases of sexual assault and harassment head to courts both in India and in the West, it is to be seen how justice will be done. I hope these women are not shamed for having endured the worst and for speaking out, even though it has taken many of them several years to muster up the courage. That doesn’t mean their courage is not to be admired.

The media too must continue to shine a light on their story and follow it through to the very end. What chiaroscuro they give the cases will determine how the issue is perceived and dealt with. What’s more, they must continue to report on stories of the rape and murder of girls who come from poor, under-priviliged familes since they are the worst exploited. The gang-rape and murder of the 8 year-old girl from Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir earlier this year has disappeared from the pages of our mainline dailies; not difficult to see why, since leaders of the ruling party were some of the accused.

It is time men too realized they need to look at life with new eyes. As Gurcharan Das, former chief of Proctor & Gamble in India and noted author and columnist wrote recently in the Times of India, it is time that boys are raised differently. In our homes and our educational institutions, we need to make sure that boys grow up learning to be equal to, comfortable with, and respectful of girls.

As I write this, news is breaking of thousands of Google employees all across the world striking work and walking out of their offices in a mass protest against what they believe to be their company’s inadequate response to the complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace. Even more heartening is the number of men who have shown solidarity and support for their women colleagues.

We also need more women to take up the cause of their sisters. And that means more women represented at the highest levels in government and in the corporate world.

Finally, I think it’s time to put aside the ‘damsel in distress’ story. We need to start telling different kinds of stories now and create new myths to live by.

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