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Amrita Sher-Gil - A Portrait


Does the painting personify the artist’s own characters or is it mere portraiture of two girls engrossed in their conversation, while the artist painted their portrait. As the narrative goes for Amrita Sher-Gil’s “Young Girls”, the girl on the left is believed to be Sher-Gil’s sister Indira, clothed in modish western crimson and green attire and sitting with an assured expression. The other partially undressed girl wrapped in beautiful white lace and blue silk, is a French friend, Denise Proutaux. Sher-Gil has subtly adorned upper naked half of the girl with her streaming blonde hair, while she positioned her facing away from the viewer, which gives a sense of coy and self-consciousness.

Sher-Gil’s “Young Girls” also enamored the jury of the Grand Salon and was awarded a Gold Medal in 1933, making her the only Asian artist to be elected as an associate of Grand Salon. Sher-Gil was only 19 years old when she was honoured with this prestigious award. Thus, she remains to be one of the most celebrated and as an inspiration for Indian art-world.

On January 30, 1913, amidst the medieval and baroque churches, at a classical mansion in Budapest, Hungary, Amrita Sher-Gil was born to an Indian father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and Persian and Sanskrit Scholar, and a Hungarian mother, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann, who was an opera singer and came from an affluent bourgeois family. Sher-Gil spent her initial childhood in Dunaharaszti town of Hungary with her younger sister Indira Sundaram.

At a very young age Sher-Gil displayed a magnificent talent for drawing, she wrote, “It seems to me that I never began painting that I have always painted. And I have always had with a strange certitude, the conviction that I was meant to be a painter and nothing else.”[1] Her uncle, Ervin Baktay, an Indologist and a former painter himself, noticed the artist in her during his visit to Shimla in 1926 and nurtured her with an academic foundation for art. In 1929, at the age of 16, she moved to Paris to pursue her art education at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière later at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts with Lucien Simon. There she studied the nuances of western aesthetics and demonstrated remarkable maturity of thought and technique of foreman colours, and her palette above all depth of melancholy held a presence of visual reality. Painting became to her a spiritual necessity; hence she avoided shortcuts and submitted to all the rigours of strict academic discipline and mastered in arduous techniques. Her initial works reflect these western intellects and the bohemian lifestyle of the Latin Quarter. By this period she had began to paint with oils and her intense aptitude for art is what has been incredibly transcended through her bold yet soft brush strokes into the vibrant self-portraits and portraits of her friends. It was this time when she painted the “Young Girls”, which was later honoured at the exhibition of Grand Salon. She created a series of self-portraits demonstrating her frame of mind; each of them is painted with a passion that is almost captivating and renders an opportunity for viewers to ponder into Sher-Gil’s life as portraiture stepped as a unique feature, as it is about relaying her persona to an outside audience.

This is one of Sher-Gil’s earliest self-portraits, where she portrays herself as a wealthy made-up subject with glowing rosy cheeks and red lips. We can study the tones of beige, the foreman of Sher-Gil’s palette for her western attire, symphonized with light and shadow, and use of red background with a bit of chiaroscuro effect. Her treatment of figure is simple and static in construction yet exulting psychological complexity. Her stern stare, while she wears a calm expression becomes the focal point on which the entire portrait pivots. Sher-Gil’s self-portraits are closest perspective of her and recite her intellectual depth, as her portraits now adorn the wall of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

During her stay in Paris, she embraced both academic realism and post-impressionist trends rooting at that time, as she encountered the masterpieces of renaissance and works of French masters Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Amedeo Modigliani. Gauguin had a particularly deep influence on her; his works had palette of expressive colours and distinctive dynamic figures that characterized livelihood in Tahiti, same aesthetes is explicit in Sher-Gil’s “Self-Portrait as Tahitian” (1943), in which Sher-Gil painted her own brown body that appears naked to the waist fitting in a three-quarter canvas and looking beyond the frame while wearing a somber expression on her face.

The predominant use of red within her palette can also be witnessed in one of her self-portraits that she gifted to Boris Taslitzky, who was her artistic companion from the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and lover until they parted in 1934. This portrait is even stirring because she was in a relationship with Taslitzky, and the fiery red background and luscious red lips really depict a woman in love. It’s an honest portrayal of herself as her features are not coy and demure rather they are quite fierce and strong. Her eyes in this painting are incredibly vivid and intense; one can witness the Gauguin’s influence in the dynamism and style of the figure. Yashodhara Dalmia describes this self-portrait in her book ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & life’ as, “In the one made against a flaming-red background. She is wearing a seductive white dress with a plunging neckline, a string of beads strung carelessly across her shoulder.”

In 2015, the painting was auctioned by Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, New York and was sold for USD 2.92 million (INR 17 crores). Looking at the Sher-Gil’s portraits one can acknowledge that her paintings were a means of struggle with her own identity, which was not even with her social profile. Juxtaposing her work, we may witness the sensual as well as introvert persona, and vulnerability to find herself in the mixed culture of Europe and India. Another of her self-portraits painted in 1931, that was offered to Christie’s in their South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale in London on June 10, 2015, was sold for £1,762,500. This self-portrait is the only known portrait where Sher-Gil has painted her definite and complete profile. Here, the subject seems to withdraw herself from any interaction with the viewer, with misty grey and blue background and blue western attire, the artist recites the melancholic experiences in her love life. An empty golden bowl at the right corner of the work depicts void and chaos, while her pose and intense expression suggest either the subject is in severe conversation with someone and about to move or she has just sat after listening something appalling.

By the end of her stay in Paris, Sher-Gil longed to return to India, for its lustrous, colourful and sunny scenes and yellow-grey land. The silent images of infinite sadness on dark toned thin faces and images of people waived down by fate created a deep impression upon her. It was these scenarios that struck Sher-Gil with all force of new revolution. She discarded revivalism but she was proudly aware of India’s artistic heritage. On a visit to Ajanta caves, she was immensely moved by the simplicity of the physique, the clear outline, the firmly molded figures & forms of frescos. As she went further south, people there reminded her of Ajanta Frescos, and she closely studied the habitation of the local population of Southern India. Her technique changed as she divulged herself in Indian traditions and culture, she empathized with the sad-eyed people around and could relate her melancholic mood with that of struggling community and while going through this intensive social experience, she painted her South Indian trilogy of paintings “Bride’s Toilet”, “Brahmacharis”, and “Villagers Going to Market”, which are among her famous works. Vibrant and voluptuous magnificence of Mughal miniatures possessed her and as a consequence, her visual language underwent a radical transformation; not only her palette, which became profound with intense reds, greens, and tones of browns and ochre, her style and figuration got wrapped with new visual originality.

In June 1938, Sher-Gil left for Hungary to marry her cousin, Dr. Victor Egan and returned to India in 1939, as she felt she should not paint at all in Europe and said, “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque. India belongs only to me”, that is also one of her infamous quotations. She did paint in Hungary, but her paintings retain the Indian despondent colours. In her quest to understand the quintessential Indian academic art, she came across the Shantiniketan School of Painting, pioneered by Abanindranath Tagore and adopted some of their techniques. However, she referred to their works as too sentimental. Due to her constant travels between Europe and India, her aesthetic styles belonged to no particular school rather her oeuvre come athwart as an amalgamation of a very detailed understanding of western and eastern traditions, with the subjects being predominantly feminist. James Elkins mentions in his book “Stories of Art” that Sher-Gil wrote in a letter, “I realized my real artistic mission is to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict the angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness, to reproduce on canvas the impression of their sad eyes created on me.” Sher-Gil’s women-oriented paintings were often drawn in their own private spaces such as “Woman on Charpai”, “Woman Holding Fan”, “Woman at Bath”, and “Bride’s Toilet”. These women were not from affluent families rather they came from rural communities and villages, as we can witness from the background and subject’s clothing, all immersed with somber shades.

Sher-Gil’s “Three Girls” (1935), that won Gold Medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in 1937, depicts three young women, each dressed in single vibrant colour and their brown background is accompanied with their shadows, as light falls on their right profile exposing their resigned expressions and inert postures. Artist has used modern compositions by dominating the lines and colours, and has made no attempt to reveal the girls’ surroundings; however, their facial expression narrates the rhyme of their submission to a foretold destiny. In Sher-Gil’s “Hill Women”, she refuses to embellish the Indian landscape and represents her empathy with the sufferings of poor women, by focusing on the people. She depicts the woman’s life in a feudal estate in “Woman on Charpai”. Unlike her portrayal of women in paintings of Paris Period, women in the paintings in this time were not sensual or necessarily beautiful but were painted with shades to portray their adversity. These paintings are among the 172 documented works from the Sher-Gil’s oeuvre, which are in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. For celebrating her achievements and contribution to Indian Modern Art, the Indian government recognized her as a National Treasure Artist in 1976. Hence, it is rare for her works to appear for International auctions. In 2013, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in collaboration with Navina and Vivan Sundaram hosted an exhibition “The Self in Making” that displayed Sher-Gil’s self-portraits. Recently, on March 5, 2020, in a Saffronart’s live auction, Sher-Gil’s “Boys with Lemons” (1935) oil on canvas, was sold for INR 17crores. The painting came from the collection of absconding merchant Nirav Modi, which was auctioned along with 68 other artworks from other artists, on behalf of the Income Tax Department to compensate the dues.

Later, she and Egan relocated to Lahore, where she was going to hold her first significant solo art show but unfortunately became ill a few days before the show. She died at the age of 28. Dalmia mentioned in her biography of Sher-Gil that the cause of untimely death was believed to be due to complications in a second failed abortion performed by Egan. In her short life, she created incredible paintings and gave voice to the sadness felt by people. Her extraordinary intellect made her a pioneer in the history of Indian Modern Art.

[1] Yashodhara Dalmia, “Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & life, A Reader”, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p. 3

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