The tantalizing nature of the French-influenced Indian depictions of the self on the canvas has made Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneer in modern art; one unapologetic of painting her true self to the world.
Unafraid of painting a crude image, the Hungarian-Indian painter was an avid traveller, one who did not shy away from her global influences whilst effortlessly mixing them in her Indian depictions. Sher-Gil was heavily influenced by French, Turkish and Indian elements and her paintings and letters bore a reflection of the same. Just as some of Sher-Gil’s self-portraits bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes, they also had a hint of Raja Ravi Varma’s style.
Born in Hungary, in 1913, is as “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century”. Her father, Umrao Singh Majitha, was a Sikh aristocrat and Sanskrit scholar and her mother, Marie Antoinette, was a pianist and opera singer. Having spent her childhood in a village in Hungary, Sher-Gil and her family moved to Shimla in 1921. It was at this time, that she realised her inclination towards painting and started taking formal lessons in fine-arts.
In 1923, Marie came to know an Italian sculptor, who was living at Shimla at the time. In 1924, when he returned to Italy, she too moved there along with Amrita and got her enrolled at Santa Anunciata, an art school in Florence, Italy. Even though her time at the art school was short-lived, Sher-Gil admitted that it was there where she got exposure to works by Italian masters.
“I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me“– Amrita Sher-Gil.
Amrita Sher-Gil had several influences, one of them was Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was an infamous French artist, who was acknowledged more famously for his Tahitian nudes and paintings. Tahiti was an erstwhile French colony and is now part of the French Polynesia, a semi-autonomous territory of France.
Gauguin painted innocent, well-endowed, dark-skinned Tahitian women, often describing their position in the local community. However, this exotic depiction of a lush, seductive island is something he created out of his own imagination, is what most argued.
Sher-Gil was heavily influenced by his style of expressive colour and stylised figures, as was evident from her depiction of dark-skinned, Indian women in their social settings in her paintings. There was also a self-portrait which was a ready depiction of Gauguin’s Tahitian nude. In Self Portrait as Tahitian, she self-consciously plays on her status as the exotic ‘other’ in metropolitan Paris.
Incidentally, Sher-Gil had a degree in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris. Her work, Young Girls left critics and art enthusiast so impressed that she was elected an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. She was the youngest ever and the only Asian to be honoured thus.
Amrita was just as renowned for her self-portraits as her other paintings depicting women in their social set-ups. One of her earlier paintings, The Torso was a nude which was a picture of her own back with a framed painting of a nude woman in the background. Art critics consider this a masterpiece for the “cleverness of drawing, the bold modelling, the perfect command and simple handling for the medium.”
Art historian Rakhee Balaram states, “The self-portraits display the artist moving from girl to woman to artist as she explored a sensuality that ranges from the heavy-handed to the subtle. Sher-Gil casts herself in a serious light in her Self-Portrait with Easel (1930), moving deliberately from the domestic and the intimate context of the nineteenth-century woman artist to the monumental and majestic poses recalling those of Rembrandt and later Van Gogh.
At stake was not only a serious and viable artistic career as a woman but the development of a subjectivity that was being defined through the self-portrait. Conscious of being both muse and maker, Sher-Gil took on the position of artist and object with a double consciousness of being both.”
Maybe, it was this bold choice of self-portraits that earned her the title of the Indian Frida Kahlo. Or it could have been her erotic relationships outside her marriage to Victor Egan, her first cousin alike Frida, known for sexual relationships outside her marriage to Diego Rivera. Both women were radically ahead of their times and albeit the first prominent painters of their contemporary times, whose undaunted portrayal of women, in their true essence intimidated society.
Perhaps, it was in this likelihood that Amrita’s legacy finds solace in Frida’s. Or perhaps, it was her notorious relationship to Marie Louise Chassany, a fellow student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts that draws parallels with Frida.
Her in-depth Indian influences were from her visit to South India in 1937, wherein she produced the famous South Indian trilogy of paintings Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis and South Indian Villagers Going to Market following her visit to the Ajanta Caves, when she made a conscious attempt to return to classical Indian art.
A transition in her body of work can be observed upon her final shift back to India wherein she took to the portrayal of Passionate India over her Western influences for the portrayal of women in a poverty-stricken Indian society.
On December 6, 1941, before her first major solo exhibition, she fell into serious illness and slipped into a coma. Later that day, she passed away. However, her influence and body of work have motivated a generation of Indian artists, from Syed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh while her portrayal of women has transformed the Modern Art Movement in India.