Frida Kahlo’s work wasn’t acknowledged during her lifetime. She spent her brief creative career living under her husband’s shadow, to the point where people claimed Diego Rivera fixed her paintings out of pity. Nowadays, all of these myths have been dismissed, and Frida has become one of the most revered visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
Amrita Sher-Gil lived a similar story. Born in 1913 to an aristocratic Sikh father and a Jewish Hungarian opera singer in the early twentieth century, she spent most of her early childhood in Hungary, but at the age of nine she moved back to India, where she would soon start practicing the arts. By that time she started painting and Ervin Baktay, a close friend to the family and renowned Indologist, would become her first critic and teacher.
Self-Portrait (9), 1930
Growing up, she lived between India and Europe. As a twelve year old, she studied at the Santa Annunziata school in Florence, Italy, but she was disappointed and left the program early. At age sixteen, she went to Paris, to study at the renowned École de Beaux Arts, where she would discover her own style.
Young Girls, 1933
During her years of study, she became obsessed on the works of the avant-garde and French Impressionism. Enjoying the works of Gauguin, Cézanne, and Modigliani, she was influenced by their style. At the age of 20, her painting Young Girls (1933) earned the Gold Medal in the Grand Salon of Paris. In it, she depicted her sister in European clothing while facing a French woman sitting on a chair. She was the first woman to ever win the prize. Yet, she didn’t yearn for a career in Europe and shortly after moved back to India to capture the beauty of her home-country with the techniques she learned at the prestigious art school of Paris.
After returning to her home country, Amrita Sher-Gil was convinced of portraying it in a way that would break with the toxic clichés that Europeans had promoted for centuries. Going against the colonial portrayal of her country, Sher-Gil found a way to blend the avant-garde spirit she learned in Europe with local shapes.
She was also against paintings with emotional appeal. To her eyes, it was useless to create paintings out of commiseration. She thought of her country as a world that could be glorified through painting, full of dazzling pictorial possibilities. To do this, she travelled to the south of the country, where she captured vibrant colors and scenes of its inhabitants. Through her art, she explored the possibilities of representing India with worth, endowing it with the sense of identity that colonialism had taken away from it. She managed to reach her goal splendidly, zooming up on a reality that Europeans had often turned away from. Nonetheless, as radical as her works were, she wouldn’t get much economic compensation during her lifetime.
When she was 25, she married one of her Hungarian cousins, with whom she had a special connection since childhood, a doctor named Viktor Egan. She wanted to continue with her travels and the nomadic lifestyle that helped her produce her most valuable body of work. Because of this, she frowned upon the idea of having children. She had two abortions, assisted by doctors that her husband
met. At age 28, she submitted herself once again to a third one. Tragically, she didn’t make it out alive due to a hemorrhage.
Group of Three Girls, 1935
A mix of both European and Indian, Amrita Sher-Gil was a unique artist with an invaluable legacy. Going against all of the prejudices of her time, she fought for a new sense of female identity and expressed with splendor the vast cultural values of her country.
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