1931, Paris. A self-portrait of a woman in a yellow beret: she sits at a table with a yellow bowl, sternly preoccupied. Her hair is sleeked into her hat. A voluminous blue dress, freely brushed in oils, slops around her powerful shoulder. She doesn’t return the viewer’s gaze. Her forehead is shadowy, these heavily-browed eyes lost in thought. The draping cloth, gleaming ceramic and sloping décolletage are rendered with equal attention. We feel the oak table under her firm fingers. She colors this room with her own blues and golds. These objects might be an extension of herself. Those signature red lips, where our eyes finally rest, set a crimson seal on this public solitude.
Amrita Sher-Gil worked on this series of self-portraits after leaving India at 16 to study at Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Here, Picasso, Manet and Cezanne painted. Her works show their influence, along with Gauguin’s. Her brilliance was quickly recognised. Continuing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she was the youngest painter to win a gold medal and be elected to the Grand Salon. At a time when feminists needed to assert their identities, Sher-Gil costumed herself innovatively, in Indian or Western dress. Yet, while she seemed gregarious at parties, her habit of withdrawing into her work, disappearing for hours and days, had been an intransigent part of her character since her father had spotted her genius as an 8 year old.
Sher-Gil’s eye is privileged. It is also, however, schooled in loneliness. An aristocrat with radical sympathies for India’s freedom fighters, Sher-Gil has been called “a communist in wolf’s clothing”. Her mother was a Hungarian Jewish opera singer. Her father, a Sikh aristocrat, was a talented amateur photographer and scholar of Persian and Sanskrit. His lush portraits of Amrita and her sister foreshadow Amrita’s hunger for beauty.
Critics have tried to align her with the naturalism and symbolism of the Bengal School of Art and with a new Expressionist experimentation in India. With an Occidental lack of imagination, she is most often labeled as “India’s Frieda Kahlo”. But Sher-Gil’s cannot be defined by any one of these terms. Her pose in the yellow beret is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s hatted self-portraits. In contrast to Rembrandt, Amrita refuses to reveal herself as the painter. She’d explore the direct gaze in a number of self-portraits, nonetheless choosing to keep some part of herself to herself.
Has she chosen this life, or has it chosen her? Capturing herself laughing, smiling acquiescently or sleeping, her hues of blue, rose and caramel are dogged by a feeling of enclosure. Vigorously worked oils emphasize the textures that tug on feminine consciousness: a silk scarf, a sprawling canvas, clattering glass beads on a bracelet. Her most sweetly smiling pose suggests the sweetness is genuine but, in its excessive pliability, aware of its construction.
In ‘Sleep’, the hairy pits Amrita displayed in real life are removed. The thingyness of the world and the thingyness of her lithe torso are rendered in smooth, pleasing browns. Her taut breasts suggest a readiness to be touched – but only in the same way that the rippling pink scarf appears touchable. The seductive convention of the nude is evaded, once more, by those closed eyes. It is astonishing to think of a half-Indian teenager displaying these selfies at the time that Picasso was exhibiting.
Red dominates a number of self-portraits. In India, it is the color of Shakti, the feminine principle that creates the world in divine sport, sometimes cruel, sometimes blissful.
Despite her slim, though full-bodied, proportions, Sher-Gil typically presents her body as bountiful. But somberness counteracts the dynamism. We note a shadow about the eyes, the carmine oils muddied. Her Portrait of A Young Man, fellow student Boris Tazlitsky, painted when Sher-Gil was 17, shares this palette of sumptuous discontent, his muscular fingers rumpling his shirt, gripping a little too hard for comfort.
Sensations battle with thoughts in Sher-Gil’s work. Her paintings suggest that the conflict between the inner and outer selves is a particularly feminine experience.
This painting of the painter Marie Louise Chassany – one of three known – displays Amrita’s ardour for flesh, clothing and personality. The two shared an intense intimacy, which some critics, including Sher-Gil’s nephew, have claimed was erotic.
We have no proof of Sher-Gil’s queerness, though her amorousness has been documented. Detractors, including envious and disapproving men, called her “promiscuous” and a “nymphomaniac”. This is to be expected, especially in India, where a sexually forward woman remains taboo. Sher-Gil appears to have continued to take lovers after her marriage to a cousin, the doctor Victor Egan. She seemed to consider lesbianism to be an ethical duty, as well as pleasure, liberating women from male control, reflecting, “I thought I would start a relationship with a woman when the opportunity arises.”
Whether or not they had sex, the avid brushwork of this portrait insists on the animality and intelligence of Marie Louise. The black lace of her dress is joyously dashed in broad strokes and squiggles. The surrounding darkness of the room licks her luminosity. It’s as if the painter can’t wait to daub her pigments into the beloved lineaments of this leonine face, its ivory, sand and oyster sheens. Half of Marie Louise is in shadow. Shadows creep across her alert, sloping eyes. Tragedy hangs on her voluptuous red lips. She is ravishing. Yet she appears almost tired of our attention, as if she did not ask for this love, but must bear it.
Choosing to live in India with Egan, Sher-Gil reconnected to its ancient aesthetic roots, visiting the cave temples of Ajanta and Ilora, where naked goddesses disport. The contrast between the mighty ideal of the goddess and the tiny scope for women is felt in her depictions of village women, whose substantial bodies and vivid dress appear to contain a suppressed monumentalism.
But, despite returning an art prize offered by the British government in Simla, Sher-Gil was not primarily an activist. Artists are greedy for the forms that sharpen their technique. Sher-Gil felt that her unique perceptions would triumph in India. “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque,” she said, “India belongs only to me.” Here was a subject whose dourness increased her powers, by forcing constraint upon her natural abundance. “If there were no poor and destitute people in India,” she said, “I would have nothing to paint.”
Women, together or alone, people the majority of Sher-Gil’s human paintings. Today, Indian women’s bodies and sexuality continue to be overwhelmingly controlled by patriarchal myths. During Covid-19 lockdown, for example, the right-wing Indian Government used the Hindu myth of Sita, wife of godly prince Ram, to warn women against leaving their homes.
Sher-Gil, observing women in domestic spaces or in groups in the world, portrays their inner state of revolt. The bodies in ‘Group of Three Girls’ sit like damp earthenware pots. Each keeps her eyes downcast, as good girls should – but each is alone with her troubles. Although the physical rendering of the European ‘Young Girls’ is more extravagantly sensuous, relishing the textures of lace underskirt, bare foot and gleaming unbound hair, both paintings show women’s interior life imposed upon by social expectations. Even here, safely having tea together, private thoughts seem troubling. It’s as if Amrita invites us into these domestic spaces to keep us out. You may look but you are not in control. Hers is a radical passivity.
The picture ‘Two Women’ has been identified by Sher-Gil’s nephew, artist Vivan Sunderam, as reflecting her undying longing for Marie-Louise. Whether that’s so, the stark stillness of these figures certainly reveals more depths the longer you look at it. The saffron, emerald and turquoise tinges are overwhelmed by grey and chalky white. These women are locked in silent need, unable to alleviate each other’s troubles. We may be forced into solidarity with another woman due to social circumstances but controlling forces will not allow us a freely chosen togetherness of the heart.
Settling in Lahore, Sher-Gil painted energetically, wearing her overalls and with her hair bound. At parties, she continued to style her figure, now in Indian silks and jewels worn with a startling modernity.
Using only natural light, the haunting sobriety of new work was fusing with a new force of sensuality. The heat and stink of the land around her infuses her painting of elephants. Her last work brooded on the landscape outside her balcony, its dust and cows. But then, while preparing for a show, she was suddenly taken ill.
Although Sher-Gil moved in elite circles, counting Nehru among her friends, her paintings contrast the restrictions on women with restricted, celibate men. Light, in the painting of novice monks, ‘Bramacharis’ parts the canvas down the centre, blessing the earthy hues of red and ochre. The figures are delicate saplings. Quitting sex, the body of a celibate man moves freely in its environment as a reed in the winds. Although Sher-Gil’s Indian women occupy a world of muted vibrancy, in terracotta, ochre, cochinelle and mint, these colors are rendered thickly, with a elemental force that suggests the pressures of their country. Biographers have suggested that Amrita had married Victor Egan when pregnant with his or another’s child and that he’d arranged for an abortion. Rumours of a second botched abortion or even murder by a jealous Egan have circled the death of this outspoken beauty, at 28. Other accounts suggest, more simply, dysentery and peritonitis, relating the distress of her husband. Amrita’s mother, convinced Victor had killed her daughter from jealousy of her flirtatious nature, never recovered from her loss and killed herself some years later. Whatever the cause, Sher-Gil’s paintings of melancholy and exuberance understand that the strongest of women can be trapped by circumstances. Grounded in social reality, robustly ambitious, her stubborn preoccupation with the suppressed inner life of women places her at the vanguard of 20th Century feminist art.
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