Iconic Women in Art: Amrita Sher-Gil

51yl-TH8rZLOn the 30th of January 1913, famous Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil was born to a Hungarian Jewish opera singer mother and a Punjabi Sikh aristocrat father in Budapest, Hungary. She trained at an early age at Santa Annunziata art school in Florence, then at 16 in Paris at Grande Chaumière under Pierre Vaillant and Lucien Simon. Later at École des Beaux-Arts (1930–34), she became influenced by the modern painting of Cézanne and Gauguin, and was associated with artist friends and lovers such as Boris Tazlitsky. Her first important work, Young Girls, led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and only Asian artist to have received this recognition. She took eagerly to pre-war Parisian bohemian life, yet one of the city’s reviewers still saw her as “an exquisite and mysterious little Hindu princess,” who “speaks French like a Parisian” and who “conjures up the mysterious shores of the Ganges.” (N. Iqbal Singh, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Biography). She died prematurely in 1941 at the age of twenty-nine from a mysterious illness, thought to be connected to an abortion.

Sher-Gil was a demure firecracker, an ambitious artist determined to make it in Europe, yet return to her native India and become a national success story. In a letter to Karl Khandalavala, dated April 1938, she wrote,“Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and many others. India belongs only to me,” and she was noted for saying “I am starving for appreciation, literally famished. My work is understood and liked less and less as time goes by”. Her complex character, seen as biracial, bicultural, and bisexual was recently described by Times magazine as “shockingly modern,” someone who “both physically embodied the predicament of “belonging” to the West and painstakingly mined its artistic training, formal vocabularies, and painterly paradigms to facilitate her legendary return to India.” (Saloni Mathur, ‘A Retake of Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as Tahitian, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring 2011).


Three Girls, 1935, now at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi

 The artist was known to use her servants as models, yet she was never part of the world of the Indian peasants that she depicted. In her work, compositions of these figures often seem to be viewed from above or from the outside, as a homogenous mass rather than as individual characters. “Sher-Gil’s portraits of Indians, which represented “the people” in the singular, as archetypes of humanity, would appear to reproduce, then, Gauguin’s primitivist gesture while also complicating the idea that primitivism as a structure of desire within modernism belonged exclusively to the white, Western male imaginary.” In Prosthetic Gods (2006), writing of Picasso and Gauguin, the art critic Hal Foster noted that “the primitivist seeks both to be opened up to difference—to be taken out of the self sexually, socially, racially—and to be fixed in opposition to the other—to be established once again, secured as a sovereign self.” Although belonging to a different world herself, it could be that Sher-Gil considered herself a primitivist of sorts. In a series of Parisian self-portraits, the painter ironically presented herself as a Tahitian nude. She was clearly conscious of the attraction of her exoticism in a city whose artistic circles fashionably embraced primitivism at the time. As early as 1891, Gauguin had sailed to French Polynesia to flee European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. He lived his island exile life with his 13-year old Tahitian bride Tehamana and was complaining of racial mixing and the supremacy of colonists in what he perceived an unspoilt paradise. Sher-Gil (only 16 herself at the time) clearly seemed to make a statement against perhaps the hypocrisy, racism and, generally, male leadership in European society and the art world. Coming from a privileged background, yet from a land in which gender equality did not exist, her position within the Parisian avant-garde was multifaceted. Her age, gender, provenance and skill turned her into a fascinating alien specimen in the elite Parisian artistic circles. 

After her death in 1941, Sher-Gil was turned into some kind of legendary, untouchable icon in her country. Quite often, her so-called ‘aura’ replaced her work as a painter, clearly due to aspects of her gender and beauty. A few biographies have been written about the artist, but none of them offers a thorough critical overview of her work. Still more time and attention needs to be invested in studying the art of Sher-Gil itself in order to uncover its complexities and distance it from the ornamental or mimetic effect attributed to it. The basic impulses that drove her work, the artist’s anxieties towards her contemporaries, as well as the social implications of the aura that she seemed to project to them, would make the subject of engaging research.

41dpqsha7cL“The aura is always built on the uniqueness of its source. While we may believe there is an actual physical glow around, say, the Mona Lisa or Marilyn Monroe (are there any eternal, iconic male images?), that glow is really in our remembrance of them. Something of this is also true of the many reported sightings of that intensely alluring object called Amrita. When she entered a room, we are told, everyone fell silent – the telltale signs of that glow around her. But doesn’t that silence mark the yawning distance between the alluring object and the lived persona, however close she may be?” (Shad Naved, ‘Still looking for Amrita’, review of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life by Yashodhara Dalmia in Social Scientist, Vol. 34, No. 5/6, May – Jun., 2006). The real Amrita Sher-Gil continues to be an enigma. Perhaps her legacy remains uninvestigated for fear of demystifying this image created about her.