Amrita Sher-Gil was a pioneer in the history of modern Indian art, and in the 28 years of her brief life was a revolution personified. Born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian mother and Indian father, Sher-Gil was a tour de force in the landscape of Modernism in British India. Living between India, Hungary and France, Sher-Gil painted the life of people and her surroundings with an intensity that remains unparalleled in modern Indian art.
Her talent for the arts was discovered very early on and encouraged and nurtured by her mother, Marie Antoinette, who came from an affluent bourgeois family in Budapest. Her uncle, Ervin Baktay, an Indologist and a former painter himself, noticed Sher-Gil’s talent for painting during his visit to Simla in 1926 and was an advocate of her artistic pursuits.
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In 1929 at the age of 16 she moved to Paris to study with Lucien Simon at the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The bohemian lifestyle in Paris invigorated Sher-Gil’s desire to paint, which she did with conviction and maturity rarely seen in a 16-year-old. The ferocity of mind and her passionate love of what is beautiful transcended through her brush strokes into the hauntingly beautiful and forceful self-portraits and portraits of friends and lovers from that period. These powerful portraits won her election as an associate of the Grand Salon, a rare honour at the time for a young, foreign artist in Paris.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1931. Oil on canvas. 25⅝ x 21¼ in (65.1 x 54 cm). This work was offered in our South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale in London on 10 June 2015 and sold for £1,762,500
Sher-Gil was in France for five years, a critical cornerstone of her career and life. It was during this rich formative period that she began to paint with oils. Her work captured the European academic realism of France of the 1920s and 30s. She was an admirer of the French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) and drew inspiration from her unconventional representation of her female subjects. Valadon was known for her powerful and sometimes controversial paintings, often of female nudes and self-portraits, and rose to the peak of her fame in the 1920s in Paris just as Sher-Gil was exploring the Parisian art scene and finding her own style. Valadon transformed the genre of the female nude by providing an insightful expression of women’s experiences, which seemed just the right language for Sher-Gil in her formative adult life as an artist.
At around the same time as Sher-Gil, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was painting powerful self-portraits in Mexico. They are both considered among the greatest avant-garde women artists practicing in the early 20th century. The parallel artistic careers and personal lives of Sher-Gil and Kahlo are uncanny. Each of them obsessively painted self-portraits with an intensity that is almost hypnotic, drawing the viewer into the innermost psyche of the artist, where one discovers a sea of melancholy and tragic poetry.
Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life in Art — a Christie’s video produced ahead of the 2013 sale of Untitled (Hungarian Village Church), 1932
As early as the years 1920-1924, when Sher-Gil was aged between 7 and 11 years old, one could see the intellectual depth she had and how she suffered from loneliness. A brief excerpt from her diary from this period clearly indicates her state of self-awareness, which accompanied her throughout her life:
In the middle of a forest a / Meadow with blue lake / The moon bathes in its rays / A lonely girl. (V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil a self-portrait in letters & writings, New Delhi, 2010).
The self-portrait from 1931 on offer is one of her undiscovered paintings, never before seen or exhibited. It remained in France from the time it was painted and is making its maiden voyage across the continent, first to New York and then to London.
The year 1931 was a very productive, exciting and yet emotionally tumultuous year for the artist — she was only 18. She had found herself in Paris, completely at home in smoky, dimly-lit cafés with artist friends and intellectuals. Summers were spent in Hungary with cousins, which were some of her happiest moments, evident from her letters to her parents from Zebegeny. However, trouble was brewing since her family’s income had shrunk enormously.
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This was also the time when Sher-Gil was briefly engaged to Yusuf Ali Khan, son of Raja Nawab Ali, a wealthy taluqdar from Uttar Pradesh. Sher-Gil’s mother fancied Yusuf as her son-in-law, while rumours had it that Sher-Gil was having an affair with her first cousin Victor Egan, much to her mother’s disapproval. Sher-Gil painted portraits of these two men in 1931, both gazing introspectively at a distance.
This self-portrait in profile is the only one known among the 19 previously known self-portraits in which the artist is in complete profile, avoiding any interaction with the viewer. The golden bowl sitting empty between her and the viewer reflects the emotional emptiness that she may have experienced as an 18-year-old, torn between the various loves of her life.
A cutting from a newspaper in October 1936
Despite her troubled love life and having to manage her mother’s emotions, 1931 was also a year in which Sher-Gil felt she was beginning to really paint well. In a letter to her mother from October 1931 she wrote: ‘I painted a few very good paintings. Everybody says that I have improved immensely; even that person whose criticism in my view is most important to me — my own self’.
Celebrating her achievements and contribution to Modern Indian art, the Indian Government recognised her as a National Treasure artist in 1976. The majority of her works are in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and these are among the 172 documented works from the artist’s oeuvre. It is, therefore, a true privilege to discover a painting by Sher-Gil, which was previously unknown to her collectors and admirers, and to offer it the world stage it deserves.
Main image at top: (Left) Amrita Sher-Gil, photographed by Karl Khandalavala, 1936. Image reproduced from V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings, New Delhi, 2010. Top right: Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1931. Oil on canvas. 25⅝ x 21¼ in (65.1 x 54 cm). Sold for £1,762,500
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