“Some Indians especially in her lifetime, before she was recognized universally, blamed her for being too western; others including her chief biographer, contest that she was utterly Indian. These completely opposite views just prove that she was neither Western in the extreme nor Indian; she was actually a perfect blending of the two artistic traditions (and of the two civilizations). Nothing European could possibly have been alien to her, for she was half European; almost all her upbringing was Western. And nothing Indian could possibly have been alien to her either, for she was the daughter of an Indian, she lived in India, worked in India and adored India. As late as 1939, when she had already developed her latest and most mature Indian style, she was able to paint, during a visit to her native Hungary, such superb masterpieces... Anyone familiar with Hungarian painting must include these among its masterpieces...” (C. Fabri, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil,’ Amrita Sher-Gil and Hungary, edited by G.Wojtilla, Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre and Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1981, p. 65)
Amrita Sher-Gil had profound ties to Hungary. Born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, she spent almost one third of her short life in Hungary. She lived here for first eight years of her life, growing up on Hungarian fables and folk songs and spoke the language as her mother tongue. She spent many summers of her student years (1929 – 34) in Zebegény, a village on the Danube about 40 km from Budapest, where her maternal aunt had a country home. It was here Amrita first became close to Viola and Victor Egan, her cousins from her third maternal aunt. She married Victor on her last visit to Hungary in 1938. During this short sojourn in Hungary, Amrita embarked on a new phase of activity in the solitude of the artist community in Zebegény.
Amrita’s Hungarian pictures amount to a meagre one-third of her entire corpus, and can be divided into two groups- those from her time there between 1929 and 1934 and those connected with her marriage in 1938. Art historian, Katalin Keserü notes, “The earlier works can be examined according to thematic genres; however, in the penetrating subjectivity of the later ones, genres overlap, styles and genres mingle – Amrita’s individual world comes into being.” (K. Keserü, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: The Indian Painter and her French and Hungarian Connections,’ Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & Life, edited by Y. Dalmia, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p. 90)
Painted circa 1938, In the Garden is from the latter phase and is an exquisite example of the universal appeal of Amrita’s oeuvre. It is made more important by the fact that Sher-Gil had refined her style throughout her years of painting and this period is considered to be the epitome of her practice. What came before was her iconic Indian period when she made a major creative breakthrough after returning to India in late 1934 from art school in Paris, producing masterpieces such as Bride's Toilet and Brahmacharis (1937).
Executed with artistic maturity, this charming work depicts a fruit laden table painted in overview in the garden of her family’s summer house in Zebegény where she had memories of happy times with her relatives. The table is painted in stark white with a warm yellow chair and a vibrant orange and red house in the background. The rest of the painting is bathed in varying shades of dark green, brown and black, lending an almost chiaroscuro effect to the work.
Keserü reflects on the allegory embedded in the work, “... bowl of fruit and a pitcher are female symbols. The living, lonely white table has been put outside (In Europe the bride and the hospital bed are white, and the deathbed and the young girl’s room) and could be the painter’s symbolic self-presentation. There is only a bare, thin, warped tree in the foreground; the background is succinctly closed off by leafy tress and by the little house. It is enticing and suffocating, familiar and mysterious, the place is strange, like the gingerbread house in the fairy tale. If we consider the garden as an interior, we look on this nevertheless, as a picture of an inner world and we are confronted with longing, loneliness, fear, hope and pain- defenselessness. (ibid. p. 104-05)
While Zebegény was special to Amrita from her childhood and teenage years, this last period was difficult. Amrita was all of 25 years old at the time. Keserü notes, “Her father and mother had already grown apart…. they [Sher-Gil family] each lived lonely lives in a shared space… Amrita liked socializing …but she did not find a companion in India with whom she could have lived as an artist. Her sister was already married and, as she said, she did not want to become an ‘old maid,’ especially in the considerably traditional society of India…She was also lonely as a woman artist…Though she took part in many exhibitions, she did not succeed in this. It sometimes happened that all her pictures were rejected (for example in Trivandrum in 1937), and at other times of course she won several prizes at the same time (New Delhi, 1936, All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society). The criticism about her was also extreme… She decided therefore that in the uncertain and lonely situation that had developed in her family, her social and her artistic life, she would come to Hungary and ‘take as her husband’ her childhood sweetheart…” (ibid. p. 115-116) Dr. Victor Egan, her first cousin, proved to be the solace that she craved.
This last period in Hungary overlapped with the time just preceding the Second World War. With war clouds hovering over Europe and widespread anti-Semitism (Amrita’s mother had Jewish ancestry), the newly married couple were not immune from danger. Keserü attributes the melancholy character and symbolism in works from this time to “her inner reality- of despair, depression, emptiness, fear and mutilation.” (ibid.) This quote is both poignant and relevant to In the Garden where no human figure is visible; the composition painted from the top view is indicative of loneliness of a strange kind. It serves as a marked contrast to the images in Amrita’s family archive depicting the couple and various family members at leisure in the Hungarian countryside.
Many influences are at play in this work, particularly that of the Hungarian Nagybánya School, whose first and foremost aim was to create plein-air paintings- the act of painting outdoors, what the eye actually sees. Amrita was introduced to this by her maternal uncle, Erwin Baktay, a pupil of the founder of the Nagybánya School, Simon Hollósy. Baktay, a well-known Indologist was of great significance to Amrita and the biggest advocate of her artistic pursuits. It was he, who noticed Amrita’s talent for painting during his visit to Simla in 1926 and was responsible for urging the family to take her to Paris to study when she was 16.
Amrita’s plein-air studies are known to have begun in Paris and continued with summer experiments in Zebegény in 1932. These later works were however totally different from her Paris works, characterized by a naturalistic style, dark chiaroscuro and typical subjects of landscapes and still lifes. According to Amrita’s nephew, Vivan Sundaram, In the Garden represents a critical move towards Sher-Gil’s mature body of work that was far less sentimental than her Parisian phase. Airy scenery can be challenging to compose compared to interiors and Amrita’s solution was to add an accented motif in the center, in this case, the striking white table, which changed the vantage point forcing a bird’s eye view. The multi-point perspective is a characteristic attribute of Indian miniature painting particularly Rajput ones which Amrita was exposed to in 1937, during a trip to South India, when she saw the collection of noted scholar, Karl Khandalwala in Bombay. Rich painterly details, dominant use of the color green, connected flat-surface and top-down view are discernible in her Hungarian works. Other paintings during this sojourn include The Hungarian Market Scene (1938), Hungarian Peasant, The Merry Cemetery and Winter (1939).
The subject of still lifes, focusing on simple household items, the sculptural view of shapes, bold treatments and solidity of lines are evocative of the art of the Post-Impressionists, in particular, Cézanne and Gauguin. Rupika Chawla articulates, “In this [period] there appears to be a fusion between the two cultures that make the Sher-Gil persona... It is almost certain that Sher-Gil was questioning her identity and her raison d’etre during this period.” (R. Chawla, ‘Talent, Tragedy and the Myth of Amrita Sher-Gil,’ Indian Art: An Overview, edited by G. Sinha, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p. 46)
In the Garden is significant also because it reflects the turning point of Amrita’s artistic style which then influenced her miniature-like compositions when she returned to India in 1939 and informed her mature style. Compare In the Garden to a later work, Woman on Charpoy painted in India in 1940: here Amrita employs her technique of the accented motif to bring the larger object to life. The curves of the Charpoy are similar to that of the table from In the Garden. The influence of Indian miniatures is evident in both works. “The new ironic naïve poetic quality characterizing her Hungarian pictures and the objectivity she had learned in France together characterize the pictures of women of her second Indian period, simultaneously with the dominance of painterlyness.” (Keserü, p. 117)
Amrita is considered to be one of India’s most celebrated and gifted artists of the pre-colonial era. While much has been written about her works created during her short life span from 1913 – 1941, her works from her Hungarian period are lesser known, which adds to the desirability of this work. It is also one of her very few still lifes. While she did paint them, especially owing to her academic education in Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts, where such forms were required, as is apparent with most of her oeuvre, she was most interested in figuration.
In December of 1976, the Government of India declared her a national treasure with regard to her ‘artistic and aesthetic value’ and prohibited the exportation of her paintings outside the country. In total, 173 paintings have been documented and of those, 95 alone are in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, making this work one of the handful by Amrita that are in free circulation internationally.