Thence by descent
Her talent for drawing was further encouraged by her art teacher Hal Bevan Petman, a fashionable socialite painter who had previously taught at the Slade School of Art in London. In his teachings Petman placed an emphasis on drawing and form that he believed was the basis of all art; this was to lay the foundations for the development of Sher-Gil's own aesthetic. Sher-Gil soon became a very competent draughtsman, which allowed her to later experiment with a less orthodox approach to her paintings. Whilst in Paris, Sher-Gil initially studied at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and was then admitted to École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts where she became a pupil of Lucien Simon. “Lucien Simon never 'taught'. He made us think for ourselves and solve technical and pictorial problems ourselves, merely encouraging each of those pupils whose work interested him, in his or her own individual forms of expression.” (ibid.) Barely twenty, Sher-Gil won many awards at the École and was elected an associate member of the Grand Salon in 1933, becoming the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition. She goes onto describe her creative output during her initial years in Paris “I went through an academic phase in the first few years of my stay in Paris, I had never imitated nature servilely; and now I am deviating more and more from naturalism towards the evolving of new, and ‘significant’ forms, corresponding to my individual conception of the essence of the inner meaning of my subject.”(ibid. ) Her biographer and friend Karl Khandalavala reveals that ‘the Paris sketchbooks show her as a talented hard-working student, imbibing various influences and displaying in her drawings a suggestion of that powerful handling of form she was later to develop.’ (Karl Khandalavala quoted in a lecture given by Ervin Baktay in London in 1962).
Paris between the two wars was a centre of cultural and artistic exchange. Despite continued economic decline and political strife, artists, poets and intellectuals of different nationalities chose to congregate there. It became a place of individualism and self-expression, and was an awakening for Sher-Gil, allowing her to explore her desires and art. Initially living with her parents in the respectable and fashionable areas of Passy and the Champs-Élysées, Amrita later moved to the Latin Quarter where she very much led the Bohemian lifestyle. Her evenings were spent in cafes and dance clubs with artist friends and writers, discussing art, politics and literature well into the small hours.
Her contemporaries at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts included the artist Boris Taslitzky (who owned this painting), and George Rohner and Robert Humblot, whose art was initially influenced by post-Impressionism but later moved towards realism and neo-humanism, resulting in the formation the Forces Nouvelles group in 1935. Whilst in Paris, Sher-Gil produced hundreds of sketches, mainly in charcoal, of male and female nudes. ‘These were done with great energy and sureness of hand, revealing her zest for the human form in all its diversity and variations.’ Y. Dalmia ‘The Paris Years’, Amrita Sher-Gil, A Life, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 30-31). Also during this period, ‘Amrita began to paint with oils for the first time, and between 1930-1932 she produced over sixty paintings.’(ibid.) The majority of these paintings were portraits of friends and family as well as a number of self-portraits, of which 22 are documented.
Her portraits during these years are of extraordinary quality considering her young age. They displayed clear influences from Paul Cezanne and Amedeo Modigliani, particularly in her construction of form and colour. Interestingly, in both Amrita’s paintings and that of her colleagues from this period there is a predominant use of red and green within their palette. Amrita later quoted Van Gogh, ‘I want to express with greens and with reds, the terrific human passions'.(ibid. p. 28). The same textured red background seen in this self-portrait also appears in a striking portrait she painted of Boris Taslitzky a year earlier, in 1930. Taslitzky was Sher-Gil’s muse, lover, and artistic comrade until they parted in 1934, one year after this painting was made. In both portraits, the sitter is wearing a white shirt that further heightens the intensity of the painting. One of her earliest self-portraits shows ‘a brightly made-up woman with glowing cheeks and full red lips, wearing a low-cut dress against a flaming-red background.’(ibid. p. 28).
Whilst in Paris Amrita was very much aware of her beauty and the effect it had on both men and women. She was also confident in front of the lens having been photographed extensively by her father who was an amateur photographer. ‘It was not Boris Taslitzky alone who was witness to the ‘enormous silence’ when she entered the room for the first time. Many other accounts speak of the hushed silence as everyone gazed at her. This effect was not so much because of her beauty, but because she clearly communicated an intensity, a directness and strong will, all of which left an impression long after she disappeared from sight… These qualities of Amrita’s persona were vividly manifested in her self-portraits.' (ibid.p. 54) Of Amrita’s many self-portraits made during this period, it is the luscious woman who most frequently appears. Dalmia highlights this self-portrait ‘In the one made against a flaming-red background, she is wearing a seductive white dress with a plunging neckline, a string of beads strung carelessly across her shoulder.’ (ibid.).
‘Amrita’s self-portraits of the Paris period were made as part of her academic training but they were also a means of grappling with her own identity, which was at odds with her social situation… In some self-portraits, the seductress is convincingly attired for the role of the femme fatale, which in others, as if in counterpoint, the introvert looks troubled and vulnerable. It was her flamboyant side that often overcame her despair and allowed her to relate to people and situations.’(ibid p. 57). Dalmia identifies Amrita’s vulnerable side as stemming from the anxieties and relationship with her parents and in particular her mother who disapproved of her lifestyle. ‘If there is an element of theatricality in these self-portraits, it is because theatre provides a continuum of roles, from the quotidian to the grandiose, in which the actor is both a participant and an observer of the role he is playing.’ (ibid. p. 58).
Looking at this self-portrait one can’t help but acknowledge the similarities with the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, whose self-portraits from this period display the same dominant frontal pose, strong use of colour and emphasis on the features. Similarities are not only found in their paintings but also in their lives. Both were of Hungarian descent and were women artists working within a male dominated modernist movement. They were rebellious characters who held strong social, political and intellectual beliefs and chose to express themselves both artistically and sexually through their art and their unorthodox relationships. Both Amrita and Frida were to have tragically short lives, but their legacy was to have a profound effect on the development of modernism within their respective countries of origin.
Sher-Gil in her life produced several paintings that contained traces of her many artistic and aesthetic encounters. If Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitians attracted her, it was van Gogh’s style of portraiture and the idea of experimenting with the self that caught her eye. In much the same way that Gaugin left France and was inspired by Tahiti, subsequently changing his style and subject matter, Sher-Gil also left Paris for India in 1934 and was influenced by her Indian culture, choosing to then depict rural subjects and their way of life rather than the portraits that she previously favoured. Her encounters with the various art forms and traditions of painting from different parts of India contributed to her own artistic idiom and style. She was inspired by the brilliance and novelty of Ajanta and Ellora; technical delicacy of Mughal, Rajasthani and Basholi School of miniatures and strength of the 18th century frescoes at the Mattencherri Palace, Cochin.
Sher-Gil belonged to no particular school or style of painting; due to her bi-racial and bi-cultural upbringing, and her constant travels between India and Europe, her work comes across as an immersion, absorption and very detailed understanding of aesthetic styles and traditions of the West and the East. Noted critic Charles Fabri theorized ‘...It was the central task of her artistic career to build a perfect bridge between the artistic vision of the West and that of India. Others before Amrita Sher- Gil had attempted to bring the East and the West together by means of painting; there was Bellini, there was Delacroix, and there was Gaugin that most successful bridge- builder of all, captivated irresistibly, by the fascination of "exotic beauty in Tahiti. But these were all westerners, trying to interpret the colour and shape and feel of the East to their western compatriots. None of them could ever have been so close to the East as this young girl, half Indian, half European, able to paint like a European, and feel and see like an Indian.’ (C. Fabri, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil,’ Amrita Sher-Gil and Hungary, edited by G.Wojtilla, Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre and Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1981, p. 65)
Sher-Gil’s constant travels not only resulted in her meeting and engaging with people of great artistic and intellectual temperament, but also, absorbing influences from varying cultures such as French, Hungarian, and Indian that shaped and impacted her oeuvre. Her natural talent, education and observations made during her stay in Europe enabled her to start a dialogue with the then veterans of modern Indian art such as Karl Khandalavala and allowed her to create for herself a very significant position in the history of modern Indian art. She wrote several essays on art and penned innumerable letters to her family and friends vocalising expansively her thoughts and vision on the form and image she felt modern Indian Art must acquire. She thus played a vital role in the articulation of twentieth century Indian art and was a seminal influence on generations of Indian artists.
There are a very limited number of works made by Sher-Gil before her sudden and untimely demise at the age of 28. In total, 173 paintings have been documented and of those, 95 are in the permanent collection of museums and institutions within India, particularly the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and will never be allowed to leave the country. (V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil, A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, New Delhi, jacket) In December of 1976, the Government of India declared her illustrious works as National Treasures which prohibited their exportation outside the country. This self-portrait is one of the rare opportunities for collectors to acquire a work painted by Sher-Gil that is outside of India and in free circulation. The magic of this painting lies in Sher-Gil‘s emblematic combination of white and red; the white of her blouse flashing against the amber red of the background. It is without a doubt that the enthralling power of this work is multiplied by the mystique and awe associated with the signature on the painting: A. Sher-Gil.
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