Amrita Sher-Gil, India’s First Contemporary Artist.
Posted On December 24, 2022
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Amrita Sher-Gil knew she was meant to be a painter as early as she could remember; she is recognized today as Inda’s national treasure and the Artist who brought Avant-guard and modern art to India.
Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest Hungry in 1913. A year later, her sister Indira Sundaram was born (the mother of contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram). Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, was a Sikh aristocrat, a Persian and Sanskrit scholar, and a prolific photographer from Punjab, India. Her mother, Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer from an affluent family. Her parents met when Marie Antoinette came to India as a companion of Princess Bamba Sutherland.
Amrita was baptized a Roman Catholic and grew up most of her early childhood in the Pest district of Budapest. In 1921 the family moved to India and settled in the Summerhill district of Shimla in the Himalayan foothills, the summer capital of British colonial India. Sher-Gil is nine years old when she meets her Indian family for the first time.
Amrita and her sister had a privileged upbringing; she and her sister began taking private classes in art, piano, and violin lessons. In 1923 her mother recognized her daughter’s artistic talent by watching her illustrate Hungarian folk tales. She decided to move to Triest, Italy, where Sher-Gil would enroll at the prestigious art school of Florence, but by 1924 Amirata rebelled against the formal teaching of the school and requested to return to India.
In 1926, the family received the visit of Ervin Baktay, maternal uncle painter and anthologist. He mentored and gave Sher-Gil a solid artistic foundation and advised her to take her painting studies seriously. After Sher-Gil was expelled from school for declaring herself an Atheist in 1929, her mother, her most prominent advocate, moved to Paris with the hope the French Masters would inspire Sher-Gil.
At only sixteen, the bohemian lifestyle opened Sher-Gil to new experiences in the company of artist friends and Boris Taslitzky, he was nineteen, and she was seventeen. It was also during that period she discovered her bisexuality. She painted with great conviction and maturity. Headstrong, fears, and independent, Sher-Gil enjoyed Simon’s easy-going teaching style. She was the first Indian Student of the Ecole des beau arts. In 1931
In 1931 she was shortly engaged to Yusuf Ali Khan, a wealthy landowner from Uttar Pradesh. Sher -Gil, at the time, also had an affair with her Hungarian maternal first cousin, Vitor Egan, and her roommate, among many others. Sher-Gil may be considered one of India’s first truly sexually liberated feminists; despite her erratic private life, Sher-Gil Art improved immensely.
Sher-Gil was heavily influenced early in her career by the western, post-impressionism style. Her breakthrough was her 1932 oil painting Young Girls; she received a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Salon in Paris in 1933. She was the youngest and only Asian to receive this recognition.
During this period, inspired by the Tahitian of Gauguin, she painted several self-portraits and nudes of her sister and her cousin. The women’s form was her preferred subject. In 1934 Sher-Gil returned to India, where she went on a journey of discovery. She embraced her Indian culture and wore only saris.
“Sher-Gil had found her artistic voice, painting the everyday life of the Indian poor and, in particular, Indian women; She once wrote,” I am trying to through my art be an interpreter of the life of the Indian people, particularly the poor and the sad. Still, I approach the problem on the more abstract plain of the purely pictorial not only because I am a painter but because I hate cheap emotional appeal and am not a propagandist…” (Amrita Sher-Gil – A Family Album by Navina Sundaram).
Sher-Gil had found her artistic voice, painting the everyday life of the Indian poor and, in particular, Indian women; She once wrote, ” I am trying to through my art be an interpreter of the life of the Indian people, particularly the poor and the sad, but I approach the problem on the more abstract plain of the purely pictorial not only because I am a painter, but because I hate cheap emotional appeal and I am not a propagandist…” (Amrita Sher-Gil – A Family Album by Navina Sundaram).
In 1936 she embarked on a tour of south India; she was raptured by the frescos of the 5th-6th centuries on the wall of the cave of the budda temple at Ajanta; in 1937 created her trilogy; Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis and South Indian Villager going to Market. I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque… India belongs only to me. Sher-Gil’s letter to a friend. In 1937 she held an exhibition of her paintings at the Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore; her style was a fusion of her different cultures. Despite adverse criticism, the show was and landmark in the perception of Indian audiences toward contemporary art.
” In June 1938, Sher -Gil went to Hungary to propose marriage to her cousin. While in Europe, she returned to western style and painted The potato peeler, in the garden, the Hungarian market scene, the merry cemetery 1938, and two girls 1939 an hommage to her bisexuality and her two cultures. The couple left Hungary for India just before the war. one again in India, Sher-Gil painted an ancient storyteller in 1940.
The mogul miniatures influenced the last phase of her work. In the swing, Women at Bath, and Woman in Red Lying 1940. by December, Sher-Gil is bored by her marriage and her art, and she falls into melancholy and depression. The musician is her last painting in Suraj. In 1940, they decided to move to Sher-Gil’s paternal home in Lahore, a major cultural and artistic center where she found the stimulation she craved.
She has a solo show scheduled for December 16, 1941, and with the help of her mother, she curates the paintings for the show. In her last letter to her parents, she talks about a view of her window and the picture she is working on. Sher-Gil suddenly falls ill, and her husband traits her for dysentery and peritonitis; without consulting another doctor for a second opinion, Sher -Gil slips into a coma.
Sher -Gil, who had several abortions arranged by her husband during her short life, speculation that her death could have been caused due to complications following a botched abortion. Sher-Gil died on December 5, 1941. The Sher -Gil family is devasted; Marie Antoinette accuses her doctor husband of her death, unconsolable she committed suicide in 1948.
Amrita left behind over 150 paintings. In 1953 the family donated some to the government of India to be housed in the first National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Her work has been declared a National Art Treasure. Some of her paintings also hang at the Lahore Museum. A postage stamp depicting her image Hill Women was released in 1978 by India Post.
The Swing 1940
Sher-Gil was raised in mansions; she was educated in private schools, her parents were both affluent and wealthy, and she enjoyed a comfortable leisure life facilitated by a legion of domestics. Thorned between two cultures, she looked to find herself and her voice. Her father is a man who stands on tradition and family reputation, and her mother is a European socialite who knows the rewards of fame, talent, and recognition when in the right circles with the proper education. She pushes her daughters to be debutantes and intellectuals. Sher-Gil was the impulsive, bullheaded determined one of the sisters.
I can understand that she tries everything to find where she belongs. Maybe to the extreme… Her enormous body of work is the visual expression of her two worlds and the search for herself. I believe that Sher-Gil was just at the beginning of her career. I cannot imagine where would her creative path could have given the world of art if having had a chance. Twenty-eight years old, she had lived fully, but when one leaves behind foolish pursuit to begin a new chapter, her book end.
I hope you enjoyed this walk with Sher-Gil; it was my pleasure to do the research and bring it to you. Other interesting reads.
Born in Turkey, Sibel Meydan Johnson lived and studied in Mons Belgium most of her life. She graduated with honors with a major in Liberal Arts.
In 1990 Sibel left her hometown for New York City. She worked for several years as a production assistant for " En Plein Air Masters" one of the first online plein air artists mentor programs then as director of production for Brush With Life TV’s series on visual art.
Today Sibel is an autodidact painter, Freelance writer specializing in art and the business of art. Mother and wife, she is a full-time artist.
Sibel's art captures and brings forth the hidden emotion of his subjects and evoke a sense of curiosity and introspection pushing the boundaries of creativity and expression, her work often combines elements of abstraction and realism, creating a unique and captivating visual experience that sometimes disturb the viewers.