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 Gottesmann, 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. In 1929, at the age of 16, Sher-Gil moved to Paris to study with Lucien Simon at the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 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. Her ferocity of mind and passionate love of beauty 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.
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. Living in Paris, Sher-Gil had the opportunity to absorb the traditions of the masters of portraiture throughout the cannon of art history. This portrait borrows from the Renaissance convention of portraying prestigious sitters in profile. Drawing from the work of Pierro della Francesca and Antonio Pollaiuolo, Sher-Gil adopts this classical format evolved from the Italian masters. This format in profile with the sitter’s averted gaze imbues her countenance with an ancient solemnity. Used traditionally for portraits of refined and high born women, this painting echoes a similar sense of knowingness, worldliness, and culture. Her work also 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 rose to the peak of her fame for her powerful and sometimes controversial paintings, often female nudes and self-portraits 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 the most formative period of her life as an artist.
At around the same time as Sher-Gil, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was painting the most powerful self-portraits in Mexico. They are both
considered among the greatest avant-garde women artists practicing in the early twentieth century. The parallel artistic careers and personal lives of Sher-Gil and Kahlo are uncanny. Their life experiences and artistic career mesh most poetically and form a narrative that is profoundly poignant, each carving a niche for herself in the world of art history within their tragically short lives. 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.
As early as the years 1920-1924, when Sher-Gil was barely a girl of 7-11 years old, one could see the intellectual depth she had and how she suffered from melancholia and 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 and Writings, p. 11)
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 Atlantic, first to New York and then to London to be exhibited and offered for sale in this auction. The early 1930s were a very productive, exciting and yet emotionally tumultuous time for the artist. By 1931, at the tender age of 18, she had found herself in Paris, completely at home in smoky, dimly lit cafes with artist friends and intellectuals, and eliciting considerable attention.
Summers were spent in Hungary with cousins, which were some of her happiest moments, evident from her letters to her parents from
Zebegény. However, trouble brewed as her family’s income had shrunk enormously as her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia’s income from his jagir lands had been confiscated by the British, and her mother, Marie Antoinette, went through bouts of depression due to this crisis. This was also the time when Sher-Gil was briefly engaged to Yusuf Ali Khan, son of Raja Nawab Ali, a wealthy zamindar from Uttar Pradesh. Antoinette 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 contemplating perhaps their own fate in the hands of this femme fatale. Sher-Gil’s own portrait is also
painted in the same year. They form a triangle between three lovers, as if in conversation – each avoiding the gaze of the viewer, withholding a secret only the three seem to be privy to. In a later interview, Egan noted “The two sisters came visiting when she was 16. It was love at first sight. That’s when she painted a ‘stupid’ picture of me. […].” (V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, p. 60) While in a letter from August 1931 to her mother, Sher-Gil tries to explain to her mother how Yusuf perhaps is not the right man for her and her affair with Victor is finished and “[…] All this I am writing because I feel I have a small right to happiness […].”(V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, pp. 61, 63)
This self-portrait is the only painting known among the artist’s 19 previously documented self-portraits in which the artist is in complete profile and avoiding any interaction with the viewer. However, the composition diagonally cuts through the canvas with the torso almost leaping out of the surface onto 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. One senses tension and desperation in the protagonist, hauntingly beautiful and magnetic and yet deliberately looking away. Despite her troubled love life and having to manage her mother’s emotions, 1931, the year of this painting, was also a year when Sher-Gil felt she was beginning to really paint well. In her 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”. (V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, p. 65)
Sher-Gil continued to take pride even in later years of what she was able to achieve as a young artist in Paris. Her self-portraits are extremely precious and personal vignettes of Sher-Gil’s brilliance. In 1937, she published an article summarising her achievements and she wrote the following about her years in Paris: “[…] I worked at École des Beaux Arts about three years and won the first prize of the annual Portraits and Still-Life competitions each year. In 1932, I exhibited my first picture at the Grand Salon. (By way of explanation to the few who may not know its significance, I will mention that the Grand Salon is the equivalent of the British Royal Academy, but on a somewhat larger and artistically superior scale.) My picture immediately attracted attention of eminent critics who noted it for its forcefulness and vigour.” (V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, pp. 323-325) Her mother wrote a biographical sketch of her daughter in 1942. In it she notes, “In the three subsequent years in Paris Amrita worked diligently at the Beaux Arts where she achieved more distinctions. She was awarded first prizes for still life compositions and also a gold medal for her self-portrait. This is a beautifully executed study in green, with a beret on her head in classic Rembrandt style.” (A. Sher-Gil, ‘A Biographical Sketch of Amrita Sher-Gil’, The Usha Journal of Art and Literature, Vol. III, No. II, Lahore, August 1942, p. 67)
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 only 172 documented works from the artist’s oeuvre. It is truly a privilege to discover a painting by Sher-Gil, which was previously unknown to her collectors and admirers, and to bring it to its full glory and offer it the world stage it deserves.
“She was denied old age, bleak or otherwise, but neither her exuberant, magnificent self, nor the work it made, contained anything for which she needed to apologize. Time has passed, and her art endures.” (V. Sundaram ed., Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, p. xiii).