press release

This exhibition explores the life and work of Indian artist This exhibition explores the life and work of Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil.

Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father. Her early childhood was spent mostly in Hungary, and in 1921 the family moved to India, where she began her schooling. At the age of sixteen, Amrita was admitted to the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris.

The five years that she spent in Paris were a period of experimentation, of trying on different personae and exploring her own hybrid identity. Sometimes wearing western clothing and sometimes wearing a sari, Sher-Gil was fully aware of her ‘exotic’ beauty.

Her early work often reflected the academic style in which she was trained. However, she also began to experiment with ways of representing the non-western body in paintings such as Sleep (1933), which depicts her younger sister Indira. She admired Paul Gauguin’s depictions of the South Sea Islands and his stylistically simplified, yet symbolically charged Tahitian nudes. Gauguin’s influence became explicit in Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934), in which Sher-Gil appears naked to the waist, in a three-quarter profile and looking beyond the frame of the picture.

‘I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India’, Sher-Gil wrote, ‘feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.’ In 1934 the family left Paris to move to Shimla, in the western Himalayas. Sher-Gil painted intensively and travelled widely, keen to observe and represent Indian villagers and their way of life.

With Three Girls (1935), she began to move away from the academic, realist style of painting in which she was schooled, and towards a flatter, more modern composition. It depicts three young women on the threshold of adulthood and marriage, their hapless expressions indicating the artist’s empathy for their predicament. In the same year she produced a pair of paintings entitled Hill Men and Hill Women showing groups of Indian villagers. The simplified and stylised handling of the figures with their sad expressions and the paintings’ elongated vertical compositions evoke a sense of dignity as well as pathos.

In 1936 she met Karl Khandalavala, a collector who encouraged her interest in Indian art, particularly Moghul miniature painting, and the cave paintings and temples carved out of living rock at Ajanta and Ellora. She was deeply influenced by her visits to these sites, describing the frescoes at Ajanta as ‘vital, vibrant, subtle and unutterably lovely’. Her paintings of the following few years reflect her growing ambition to create a modern style of painting which was at once quintessentially Indian yet entirely her own. South Indian Villagers Going to Market, which draws both upon the influence of Ajanta and her travels through southern India, is considered by many to be among her most significant works.

The late 1930s saw the start of a new direction for Sher-Gil. Some of her pictures show her working on a more intimate scale, influenced by Indian miniature painting. From now, Sher-Gil’s paintings became more naive in style, the figures further simplified and the colours richer.

A recurring theme throughout Sher-Gil’s oeuvre is the representation of women in seclusion or moments of private thought. During her time in India she became familiar with the isolated lifestyles of women living on feudal estates, and many of her paintings evoke this inner world of boredom, resignation, idle pastimes and desires.

In June 1938, she returned to Hungary to marry her cousin, Victor Egan. With the threat of war looming, the couple left Budapest in June 1939, intending to live with Amrita’s family in India. However, her mother’s hostility towards Victor forced them to leave Shimla. Amrita’s last painting shows a view from the window of her studio in Lahore, where they had recently settled. The picture was unfinished at the time of her sudden death (possibly the result of a botched abortion) in December 1941. Though she was still only 28, she was already well recognised as one of India’s most important artists.

An artist in his own right, Amrita Sher-Gil’s nephew Vivan Sundaram has been involved with the Sher-Gil archive for more than thirty years. In 2001–2 he created a series of digital photomontages entitled Re-take of Amrita. Using photographs taken by Amrita’s father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil as a starting point, Sundaram produced montages that literally re-take or re-present the family album, foregrounding in particular the images of Amrita.

In the original photographs, Amrita’s father portrays himself as a deeply serious and self-reflexive man at odds with the lavish décor of his home and the vivacious lifestyle of his Hungarian wife, Marie Antoinette. In his montages, Vivan Sundaram presents these contrasting parental figures alongside pictures of Amrita and her sister, combining images taken at different times and locations.

Amrita appears as a young woman in command of her own multiple identities, reflected in her changing outfits, stances or expressions. There are allusions to her remarkable love life: her numerous lovers included the artist Boris Taslitzky, and perhaps even the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As much as the pictures allow us to peer into a fascinating private world and appear to offer insights into the domestic life and psyche of the artist, they also raise questions and at times we are unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

The film playing here Amrita Sher-Gil, a Family Album, is a personal account of the life and work of the painter made by Navina Sundaram, Amrita’s niece and Vivan’s sister. Using old photographs, letters, diary entries and newspaper cuttings as well as stories that her mother told her, Navina Sundaram investigates the art and life of Amrita Sher-Gil from her perspective as both a journalist and a family member.

Text by Ann Coxon

Organised in collaboration with the Haus der Kunst, Munich; the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; and the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, New Delhi.

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Amrita Sher-Gil
Kuratoren: Emma Dexter, Ann Coxon, Matthew Gale