The ambiguity of Amrita Sher-Gil’s art

Exploring the blend of Indian and European influences that made Sher-Gil a pioneer of modern Indian art

Words by Jayathmika Lakshmi

Sher-Gil with her paintings. Image copyright- Estate of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil

In a letter written in 1938 to her friend and art collector, Karl Khandalavala, Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter of Indian and Hungarian heritage wrote: “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs to me.” In the creation of a collection of work that challenged the conventional culture and characterisation of women in Indian art, Sher-Gil would indeed proceed to cement her position as a trail-blazer and avant-garde amongst the artists of colonial India. Her vision as a painter demonstrates a unique and complete synergy of the artistic traditions of both Indian and European art.

Born in Budapest, in 1913 to a Sikh aristocrat and Hungarian opera singer, Sher-Gil was from birth surrounded by ostentation, beauty and the arts. From a young age she developed a keen interest in art and began painting with watercolours at the age of five. Her uncle Ervin Bakatay, who was a painter himself, recognised her talent early on and suggested an education in the arts. Sher-Gil first studied at an art school in Florence and later moved to Paris at the age of 16 to study at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. Her work during this period depicted Western direction with Indian receptivity, which showed a deep understanding of herself.

Sher-Gil who had grown up with rebellious tendencies, immersed herself into everything that was on offer in eccentric Parisian society. She experimented with her sexuality and style dressing up for some occasions in Western clothing and opting to wear a sari in others. The artist also had numerous affairs, which fuelled her intense passion for painting but made her an outlaw of society at the time. However at 25, Sher-Gil married Viktor Egan, a distant cousin from her maternal side, with whom she shared a bond since childhood.

'Sleep' by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1932

Sher-Gil instantly developed a keen interest in the human form whilst studying in Paris, sketching and painting numerous nudes and portraits using charcoal and oil paints. Her paintings expressed a strong sense of femininity and melancholy that alluded to her chaotic but colourful life.

Following her training, Sher-Gil remained fascinated by the modern art scene in the city. She began working with live models and created sensuous, stimulative portraits with soft creases, spongy skin and sensitive features. Her painting style is reminiscent of the likes of Paul Gaugin and Amadeo Modigliani but also expressed her strong personality as a young woman and artist.

The 1930’s in Paris was a time remembered for the exploration and experimentation of one's sexuality. Sher-Gil easily adapted to this bohemian lifestyle and had relationships with both men and women, feeling that it gave her a certain freedom that enhanced her artistic abilities. During this period, she composed 60 paintings that were mainly portraits but also included several landscapes and still life compositions. One of her most celebrated pieces from this time was ‘Young Girls’ (1932), a painting of her sister who sits poised and fashionably dressed and her friend who sits partially dressed and slightly hidden. The two girls can be seen as representations of the two different sides of the artist herself. This piece was awarded a gold medal at the Grand Salon in 1933 for its brilliant technical and tonal differences.

'Young Girls' by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1932

However, while her art had begun receiving many accolades and awards, Sher-Gil realised she had not yet reached the peak of her artistic ability. In 1934, she wrote in a letter that she was “haunted by an intense longing to return to India,” feeling her destiny as an artist laid there. After moving back in the same year and travelling across India, the painter was greatly influenced by Indian miniatures and the Ajanta frescoes in South India. Her palette transformed to bright reds, greens, whites and more earthy colours and her paintings permeated the rich style of the frescoes and the miniatures.

Within a few months of returning to India, Sher-Gil completed 'Three Girls' (1935), which showed her moving away from the academic style she had been taught in Paris and choosing a different approach where her lines became simpler and her colours bolder. The painting shows three young women sitting with sad expressions, waiting for their predestined lives to unfold, depicting loneliness and isolation. During the time Sher-Gil wrote, “I am personally trying to be, through the medium of line, colour and design, an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad.”

Hereafter her art was a reflection of the daily lives of the Indian lower class - especially the women - delivered by means of their everyday surroundings and depicting the inherent misery in the society. She didn’t however, completely abandon the Western style but instead adapted it to create a new, original mode that combined both Eastern and Western techniques.

'Three Girls' by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1935

While Sher-Gil’s style of painting evolved, her choice of subject remained fixed: the female form. Whether it was herself, her friends or her servants, the artist’s portrayals defied conventional representations of women, which until then was mostly passive and accessible to the male observer. Sher-Gil’s women were evocative yet melancholic, performative yet ambiguous and sensual yet vulnerable. They were both subjects as well as objects and their portrayal became a symbol of representation for Indian women.

Indian art during the 1930’s was mostly landscapes and heavily based on Indian mythology. The women in Indian paintings always originated from ancient Indian literature and mythology. Sher-Gil’s art burst out of these conventional themes, with provocative pieces that explored the female form. In an article titled ‘Modern art in India’ published in 1936 in Indian newspaper, The Hindu the artist states: “The Indian art committed the mistake of feeding almost exclusively on the tradition of mythology and romance. I am an individualist evolving a new technique that though is not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.”

Sher-Gil’s experiments with the female body began from the beginning of her career but started getting recognition in the 1930’s. In 1931 she painted ‘Torso’ (1931), a self portrait of her nude back and in the following year completed ‘Sleep’ (1932), a nude painting of her sister. In both these provocative pieces, Sher-Gil began questioning the expressions and identification of the female form and her paintings started showing significant truthfulness. This is evidently seen in ‘The Professional Model’ (1933), which is a portrait of an aged model. The painting portrays the darker side of the glamorous Parisian life, showing the lingering life of a heavily slouched model surrounded by sorrow and negligence because of her old age. The sitter’s posture shows the un-idealised body, communicating the cruelty of life and age.

'The Professional model' by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1933

In 1934, Sher-Gil completed a riveting piece titled ‘Self Portrait as a Tahitian’ (1934). The portrait shows a self-possessed and serene Sher-Gil with a gaze focused into the distance suggesting her indifference. The painting shows the artist shifting towards a non-Western style of portraying the female form. At the time, the established representation of women was rooted in patriarchal gender constructions. The female body was generally depicted as a beautiful object of the male gaze. In contrast, Sher-Gil constructs herself unconventionally, withdrawing herself from male consumption.

From hereon Sher-Gil developed a new, masterfully-blended style and went on to create some of her most extraordinary works. In 1939 she complete Two Girls (1939), a painting of two nude women posing intimately. The paintings takes on the performative role of portraying the artist’s dual identity. The dark skinned girl could be read as representing Sher-Gil’s Indian roots while the fair skinned figure symbolises her European lineage. The self-possessed stances, poised profiles and engrossed eyes suggest empowered subjects. The artist uses the nude female form as a strong symbol for self representation and became a revolutionary, 20th century woman artist visualising herself.

While Sher-Gil had a significant career, it was short lived. The artist died in 1941 at the age of 28 due to a haemorrhage caused by an abortion. Despite her sudden death, she left an impactful legacy of 172 documented paintings, which served as source to the progress of modern Indian art. Sher-Gil broke barriers not only in her personal life but also through her work, redefining the way women and modern Indian art was looked at and considered. In 1976 the artist became a national treasure in India, meaning her work could not leave the country. But Sher-Gil’s extraordinary work belonged to both the lives she lived in the west and the east.

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