‘ Like a hunted dog afraid, afraid / And would I be the proud messenger? / Who like a nobody [ … ] / Has no time to hate, to love / But is only hiding from pity? ’ 1 These few verses from one of Amrita Sher-Gil’s poems get to the heart of the conflict in the discussion of the artist’s life and work. Although being constantly anguished by her hybrid identity, Sher-Gil desired to represent a new subject matter and a pioneer in modern Indian art with unconventional representations of Non-Western female bodies. This essay will scrutinise the individuality of her paintings by examining various stylistic and personal influences as well as discus the artist’s progress by analysing three paintings from 1930-1935. While Self-Portrait with Easel (1930) is clearly influenced by Western style, Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1934) is already challenging the traditional representation of the female nude. The climax of Sher-Gil’s artistic transition will be discussed in Hill Women (1935). Moreover, the paintings will be discussed with the artist’s personal situation and the historical and cultural context in which they were created.
Especially Vivan Sundaram’s book “Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings” as well as Dalmia Yashodhara’s work “Amrita Sher-Gil: Art and Life: A Reader” gave fascinating insights into the subject.
The historical, cultural, and personal background in which Sher-Gil’s paintings are embedded is essential for their interpretation.
Although the classical western tradition was still dominant in European art schools in the early 20th century2, there was a growing fascination for depicting the ‘exotic other’ among artists of the ‘Primitivism’ movement.3 Undoubtedly, colonialism had a huge impact on this development. On the other side, the interest in own artistic heritage rose simultaneously with the upcoming nationalism in colonialized India.4
Born in 1913 as the half-Indian, half-Hungarian daughter of intellectual parents,
Amrita Sher-Gil crossed cultures and borders between Hungary, India, and France multiple times before her return to India in 1934. Her paintings give evidence of the various cultural influences and the artist’s struggle with her hybrid identity. When her turbulent life ended in 1941, Sher-Gil’s work was still in a process of progression.5
Self-Portrait with Easel (1930)
The remarkable and yet not much recognised Self-Portrait with Easel (Figure 1) was painted in 1930, the second year of Amrita Sher-Gil’s stay in Paris. During her studies at the É cole des Beaux Artes Amrita’s art was often described as inspired by contemporary western artists such as Paul Gaugin and Paul Cézanne.6 Nevertheless, the 1930 Self-Portrait gives proof that she also referred to former European and female artists to claim her status as a woman artist, which will be explained shortly.
In the painting Self-Portrait with Easel, Sher-Gil is both creator and subject by gazing in the mirror, which in this case includes the spectator. She depicts herself in a half-length, ¾ posture in front of an easel. Although there is no other artistic equipment visible and her red cloth seems too elegant for work, she is clearly presenting herself as an artist in a manner which reminds of former western artists. Since Sher-Gil was fascinated and influenced by Renaissance artists7, one might compare her to Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi who had to claim their status as a painter just like women artists in the early 20th century that were still struggling for recognition.8
This statement is also supported by the visual emphasis on the artist’s face and right hand, which echoes the posture of the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer in his Self-Portrait from 1500 (Figure 2). Both artists are directly facing the beholder with a serious expression while their right hand fingers are gently touching the fabric of their cloak in chest height, which in Dürer’s case is understood as a sign of integrity and skilfulness.9 Panofsky describes his painting as an ‘insight’ into the artist’s religious attitude.10 By imitating Dürer’s famous gesture Sher-Gil seems to claim these artistic qualities for herself equally and adds a sacral connotation to the portrait.
Although the subject matter and posture of Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait give proof of her familiarity with European art, it can be assumed that she used them as references only to underline her professionality as an artist. Concerning her style, she is not striving for an extreme naturalism as it is presented by the artists mentioned above, but more reminding of the Impressionism and Orientalism of her contemporaries.
I hypothesize that Sher-Gil was additionally inspired by Frida Kahlo’s Self- Portrait in a Velvet Dress (Figure 3), which was finished only four years before Amrita’s artwork. Hence there is a remarkable similarity regarding the long red cloak, the exposed right hand and the coiffure of the straight, black hair it can be assumed that Sher-Gil was familiar with Kahlo’s portrait. Furthermore, the subject’s direct, earnest gaze, significant dark eyebrows, rounded forehead and full red lips represent an image of women different to the Classical Greek tradition. The trend towards formalism and reduction in Kahlo’s postcolonial paintings11 will also be an increasingly notable aspect of Sher-Gil’s later works. Thus, the artists’ mixed-race identity, their temperament and their subject matter are meaningful similarities between the two women artists.12
Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1934)
The four years between the 1930 Self-Portrait and Self-Portrait as Tahitian (Figure 4) reveal a significant development towards a ‘Non-Western’ approach in the representation of the female body. The alteration of Sher-Gil’s work becomes obvious in comparison to the established western idea of the female nude, which is rooted in Classical Antiquity. Women in the artworks were usually the beautiful objects of the ‘male gaze’ in patriarchal gender constructions, which depicted them as either modest or sensual13. The latter applied especially to nudes.14
In contrast, Sher-Gil uses her own status as the ‘exotic other’ to depict herself unconventionally on the three-quarter portrait.15 She presents a calm figure, with her? own sexual desires - suggested in the visual emphasis on lips and breasts - and yet is ‘not offered for consumption’16. The subject’s indifference to the viewer is depicted by her focussed gaze into the distance, to which her tanned naked body is slightly turned; a possible reference to the artist’s longing to return to India.17
The mystifying male shadow behind the woman is ambiguous in its meaning. Mathur suggests that it echoes similar figures in Paul Gaugin’s paintings and is a sign for Amrita’s aim to distance herself from his western image.18 In my opinion, the shadow rather mediates a subliminal notion of voyeurism and presence of a male spectator. Moreover, considering that Sher-Gil was continuously tortured by her bipolar personality19, one might even understand it as a reflection of the artist’s psyche; and therefore, as an expression of her struggle of identity, due to her ethnic, cultural, sexual and artistic hybridity20, and her hope to find belonging in India.
Thinking one step further, Self-Portrait as Tahitian captures a stage of the artist’s artistic and personal transition. Sher-Gil visibly attempts to break with the boundaries of western tradition and Primitivism painters and experiments with different ways of representing the female body. She does so in showing herself in the role of a Tahitian woman. Yet, the painting is still influenced by the contemporary European art scene, which is visible in the scene depicted in the background of the painting. Instead of an Arcadian-like image of Tahiti, we see a rather sketched image of an Eastern temple with Asian women and a man. The reason therefore might be the Japonisme movement, in which many European artists were fascinated by Japanese art.21 On the contrary, it could be a reference to the Japanese and Chinese influences on the contemporary Indian Bengal movement.22
Hill Women (1935)
The 1935 painting Hill Women (Figure 5) reveals Amrita Sher-Gil’s further development towards the representation of non-Western female bodies. After her return to India, Amrita first studied the cave paintings in Ajanta, but soon was more fascinated
1 Amrita Sher-Gil, in: Sundaram, V. ed., Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings, Volume I. New Delhi, 2010, 131.
2 Subramanyan, K.G., ‘Amrita Sher-Gil and the East-West Dilemma’, in Yashodhara, D., Amrita SherGil: Art and Life: A Reader. New Delhi 2014, 36.
3 Varnedoe, K., ‘Gaugin’, in W. Rubin, “ Primitivism ” in 20 th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Volume I., New York 1984, 179.
4 Mitter, P., Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850 - 1922, Cambridge 1994, 352.
5 Yashodhara, D., Amrita Sher-Gil: Art and Life: A Reader. New Delhi 2014, ‘Introduction’.
6 Khandalavala, K., ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: An Artistic Evaluation’, in: Yashodhara, D., Amrita Sher-Gil: Art and Life: A Reader. New Delhi 2014, 24.
7 Amrita Sher-Gil, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: The Talented Artist’, in: Sundaram, V., ed., Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings, Volume I., New Delhi, 2010, 323.
8 Healy, M., ‘Lecture 3 and 4: Renaissance and Baroque, women artists, representations and identity’, in: Intentions in Art, UCC, 20/22.09.16.
9 Smith, J., D ü rer, London 2012, 146.
10 Panofsky, E., The Life and Art of Albrecht D ü rer, Princeton 1955, 43.
11 Herrera, H., Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, New York 2002, 42.
12 Mathur, S., ‘A Retake of Sher-Gil's Self-Portrait as Tahitian.’ Critical Inquiry, 37.3 (2011), 522.
13 Kemp, M., The Oxford History of Western Art, Oxford, 2000, 20 and 46.
14 Brown, S. ‘Ways of Seeing Women in Antiquity: An introduction to feminism in classical
archaeology and ancient art history’, in A. Kooski-Ostrow and C. Lyons, eds., Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology, London, 1997, 15.
15 Healy, M., ‘Lecture 8: ‘Amrita Sher-Gil’, in: Intentions in Art, UCC, 06.10.16.
16 Mathur, 521f.
17 Ibid. 534.
18 Ibid. 522.
19 Mitter, P., The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and The Avant-Garde, 1922-47, London, 2007, 46.
20 Mathur, 516.
21 Ibid., 528.
22 Sundaram, Volume II., 733.