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Artist Profile3
The work and life of a legendary female artist from India
One of India’s most significant artists, Amrita Sher-Gil’s extensive oeuvre is a unique blend of sharp commentary on the prevailing socio-cultural milieu and the philosophy of painting. Mere 29 years of life and awe-inspiring artistic achievements therein still evoke immense curiosity among art connoisseurs. Ironically, she could enjoy limited success and recognition, as an artist in her lifetime.

Born in 1913 in Budapest to a Sikh father and a Hungarian mother, she was the first significant Indian female artist to attain fame internationally. The family came to India in 1921, where did her early schooling. Her father Umrao Sher-Gil was an armature photographer who photographed himself and his family over the course of five decades. They brought out the close relationship that father and his sensitive daughter shared. Possessing extraordinary painterly skills and talent, she received her artistic grooming in Florence, and later joined the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris where she studied from 1930 to 1934. She tried on different personae and explored her own hybrid identity.

Her early works reflected the academic style she was trained in. She simultaneously experimented to represent the non-western body in her paintings. An admirer of artist Paul Gauguin, the influence of realism was palpable in some of her works, particularly in the time period between the two world wars. However, she also experimented with ways to represent the non-western body in paintings like ‘Sleep (1933)’ of her younger sister. She felt haunted by an intense longing for coming back to India’, as the artist herself had revealed, ‘feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.’

In 1934 the family moved to Shimla. She painted vigorously and traveled widely, observing and represent India’s rural life. Exuding a joie de vivre, her practice was gradually characterized by a sense of melancholia, even while eyes firmly fixed on the timelessness of a pretty object. With ‘Three Girls’ (1935), she visibly switched to a flatter, more modern composition from the academic, realist style of painting. A pair of paintings (‘Hill Men’ and ‘Hill Women’) she painted in the same year, depicted Indian villagers, evoked a sense of dignity and pathos.

Art collector Karl Khandalavala, whom she met in 1936, initiated her towards Indian art. She was influenced by her visits to Ajanta and Ellora. Her subsequent body of work reflected her growing urge to create a modern style of painting, entirely her own yet quintessentially Indian yet. From the late 1930s onwards, her paintings became slightly more naive in style, the colors richer, and the figures further simplified.

The representation of secluded women in their moments of private thought was a recurring theme in her oeuvre as she became acquainted with the isolated lifestyles of lonely women in India living on feudal estates. Her paintings evoked this inner realm of resignation, boredom and idle pastimes. She returned to Hungary in June 1938 to marry her cousin, Victor Egan. Her last unfinished painting shows a view from the window of her Lahore studio, where they finally settled.

‘Amrita Sher-Gil: A self-portrait in letters & writings’ (Publisher: Tulika Books) offers some interesting insights into her extraordinary life spread across India, Italy, Hungary, France and the UK. Her correspondence, carrying notes and annotations by established artist-curator and her nephew, Vivan Sundaram, portrayed her mesmerizing personality laced with a touch of history. Reviewing the book and her artistic journey, critic Uma Nair had noted: “It becomes a landmark biography of the artist, to show how her apparently patriotic tones are part of a long, complicated fight against a Western emotionalism, which existed in India.

Obviously, she was passionate above all in her commitment to artistic ideals and absolute in terms of her quest for the Indian idiom. Sample her views on art processes and philosophy in a letter she wrote to one of her critic friends. “Ironically enough, good art never appeals at first sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that more often than not it repels. Bad Art, on the other hand, based as it is on cheap effect, appeals immediately to the artistically underdeveloped mind and therein lies its danger.

“Because though taste, of course, like every other faculty, can be developed, and when trained in the proper direction should qualify everyone to distinguish a bad work of art from a good one and enable people to develop a genuine preference for the latter, it is unfortunately very seldom that people attempt to develop this faculty even to a moderate degree,” she notes. “There are people who have the illusion that there are no absolute values in Art and believe, therefore, that personal taste is the only standard by which a work can be judged, and consequently dub everything that repels them as bad with the certitude and intolerance that can only be the outcome of ignorance...”

Many of her paintings in the early 1930s in the European style included several self portraits, apart from paintings of her life in Paris, still life studied, nude studies, and portraits of her friends. The self portraits captured the own persona in many moods, revealing a curious streak in her personality. The artist also yearned for her home country, and her roots. She came back home in 1934. She appropriated in particular the language of miniatures. Her return to the homeland became a kind of self-discovery voyage, after her confrontation with art scene here and her own sexuality. Her female protagonists, often portrayed in their own secluded private spaces, were mostly from humble backgrounds. The legendary artist died at the age of 29 in 1941 in Lahore.

Her works and life history were presented at Haus der Kunst, Munich in 2006-07. Lauding her achievements, an accompanying note stated: “The Indian-Hungarian artist, an emblematic figure only comparable to frida kahlo, was a true protagonist of artistic modernism in India. Her work was a culmination of several different things like (Indian) cult and exotism, politics and sexuality as well as a curious mixture of contrasting visual cultures. A monumental exhibition at Tate Modern explored the life and work of this mysterious female Indian artist through the different stages it passed until her death.

Amrita Sher-Gil’s unbounded talent, her intense personality and her breathtaking beauty transformed her into a kind of everlasting mystery, only heightened by her tragic and premature death in Lahore in 1941 at the young age of 28.