A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
Not many family albums are exhibited in the Tate Modern, but then again, Amrita Sher-Gil and her kin are no ordinary dynasty. Rather, an exceptional legacy is displayed in Amrita’s paintings, their creativity echoed alongside her father Umrao’s photography (a novel medium in the early 20th century) and nephew Vivan’s retouched images of the past. Though the London exhibition, like Amrita’s own life, was brief, this gorgeous volume displays her work in an accessible and striking format for posterity.
Amrita, like her paintings, was the product of both East and West, her father a Sikh noble married to a former Hungarian opera singer. Amrita was born in her mother’s homeland, and it was not until 1929, at the age of 16, that her family relocated to Paris, where she began her formal artistic education. In this volume, we are invited to trace her development through formative training at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts, depicted in early works such as Portrait of a Young Man and Self-Portrait at Easel: even at this young age she displays an impressive command of palette, the colors vital even if the figures are still constrained by the en vogue Parisian forms she would later eschew. Similarly, several nude studies seem exercises straining towards brilliance, the forms—like Amrita herself—waiting for an environment equal to their talent.
An unusual treat among these early pieces are facing pages, one bearing the 1932 painting Young Girls (which gained Amrita membership in the Grand Salon the following year), the other her father’s photograph of the artist and her models during the composition: a rare glimpse of the artist in action. Finally, we are presented with the artist’s decision, announced in a 1934 letter to her parents, to pursue further development in India. Acknowledging her debt to Paris while contemplating opportunities abroad, she writes: “Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe I should perhaps never have realized that a frescoe from Ajanta … is worth more than the whole Renaissance!”
It is in her later works, prior to her untimely death, that we see Amrita’s talent blossom. Like her better-known contemporary Frida Kahlo, she brought a distinctly European sensibility to her depiction of her homeland. India, like Kahlo’s Mexico, proved a fertile ground, its indigenous art inspiring her even as she wrought a new, modernized image of this second homeland. The dual character of Amrita’s art is reflected in her nephew Vivan’s more recent retrospective Doppelganger, an image in which a twinned Amrita stands before a mirror, attired in both a prim European coat and a traditional sari.
The artists’ first images upon returning to India, as deftly noted by the volume’s introduction, echo paintings of Morocco by Matisse, and Tahiti by Gaugin—indeed, the connection is made explicit by Amrita’s Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934), whose rich tones and character are transferred to natural, rather than imitative subjects in Group of Three Girls, Hill Men, and Hill Women. Amrita’s native subjects, the villagers and laborers around her—austere, motionless in contrast to the vivacity of the painting’s colors—reflect not just a formal commitment to the still-life form, but a snapshot of a growing social conscious within the artists’ adopted home. In assuming a role, as she describes in a 1942 art journal publication, of “an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly … the poor and the sad,” Amrita follows other advocates such as Mulk Raj Anand, whose novel Untouchable was also published in 1935. However, Amrita’s later work was inspired as much by her subjects—her countrymen—as India’s own artistic traditions, particularly the frescoes she observed in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora during a 1936 tour coinciding with her first exhibitions in the East.
The energy of these ancient pieces galvanizes Amrita’s following compositions: in contrast to her earlier, static compositions, even the languor of everyday rural life is newly animated and vital. Comparing, for instance, the Hill Women (1935) and the South Indian Villagers Going to Market (1937), we see the formerly statuesque figures replaced by innervated subjects, such as a woman perched uncomfortably on her toes while in mid-stride. Similarly, the subjects of the Bride’s Toilet (1937), though seated, are nevertheless alive: the bride’s seductive gaze towards the viewer, along with her maid’s pose grasping a bowl of makeup, betrays not a scene outside of time, but a dramatic snapshot of domestic theatre. The bride’s palm, stained by scarlet powder, illustrates how unmistakably Amrita has captured her subject “red-handed” in the performance of life. Another image from her-post tour work, the Brahmacharis (1937), displays mastery not just of dramatically contrasting colors, but the subtle variations of a single hue as well. Accents in the subjects’ white dhotis, individualized to each figure, are echoed in the finesse of skin tones between the five subjects. The colors breathe imperceptibly, rustling across the canvas, and demonstrating a master’s ability to inject a hushed though vibrant pulse into her work.
Having exhausted the inspiration gleaned from Ajanta, Amrita later patterned her work after another indigenous style, the school of miniature paintings she observed in Bombay. Her paintings from this new phase, such as the Siesta (1937), are more stylized than the striking figures of Bride’s Toilet and Brahmacharis: the human forms are more suggestions than explicit: swathes of color whose broad stroke, in the absence of refined details, stand in for Amrita’s earlier, anatomical precision. Indeed, the actual subjects seem almost at times an afterthought to the composition’s style, disconnection reflected in a 1938 letter in which the artist writes: “… I see in a more detached manner, more ironically than I have ever done.” This detachment may also be seen in her diversified portfolio, encompassing non-Indian subjects such as the Hungarian Village Market (1939).
Perhaps the most striking image of the entire volume is the The Last Unfinished Painting (1941), a visual reminder of Amrita’s tragically abbreviated career. The cause of her death, days before an exhibition, remain unclear, and the blurred forms of her last composition suggest her status on the edge of greatness—almost arrived, but not yet firmly drawn, a life as brilliant as the hues of her final work even as its contours never achieved full definition. The possibility of her influence outside the sphere of art is suggested by her brief acquaintance with Nehru, and one wonders whether her work might have acquired additional political dimensions in its evolution. Amrita’s nephew Vivan attests to the unfinished nature of her life in his digitally retouched images of her past, in which an eternally youthful Amrita is interposed among fictitious scenes and experiences. The melancholy of these dreams—including, appropriately enough, a pair of images entitled Amrita Dreaming, I & II—speak not just to the tragedy of the artists’ own unrealized potential, but that of her project, in all the paintings that might have existed, and the Indian modernism that might have been.
Amrita Sher-Gil: An Indian Artist of the Twentieth Century serves as a succinct and compelling exposition of her work, illuminating not only her painting itself, but the letters and photographic traces of her development as an aesthetic representative of India. The introductory chapter, An Unfinished Project, provides a compelling account of Amrita’s art in the context of her experiences, as well as the larger timeline of 20th-century art. With such a handsome memorial, Amrita’s legacy will no doubt supercede her own brief life.Joseph Babcock is a PhD student in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.