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More than Muses: Amrita Sher-Gil · By Beth Dawson

The 1930s and 1940s saw the creation of famed artworks depicting the “ordinary” and “everyday life” as it hurtled towards the middle of the 20th century. Famous works produced in this period include Grant Wood’s iconic image of American rural life in ‘American Gothic’ (1930), Edward Hopper’s tableau of city life in ‘Nighthawks’ (1942), as well as ‘A Cricket Match’ (1938) and ‘Going to Work’ (1943) by L.S. Lowry, which depict both the leisure and labour of those living in the North West of England.

Clockwise: L.S. Lowry, 'A Cricket Match' (1938); Grant Wood, 'American Gothic' (1930); Edward Hopper, 'Nighthawks' (1942); L.S. Lowry, 'Going to Work' (1943);

Elsewhere during this period, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), pioneer of modern Indian art was depicting scenes of life in India under British colonial rule. Her talent was discovered at an early age and Sher-Gil began her artistic education in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts when she was 16 years old. Her Hungarian-Indian heritage is not only reflected in her multifarious art style, but also in her expression of identity, at times wearing dresses typical of those surrounding her in Paris, at others choosing a sari.

Sher-Gil's 'A Self Portrait as a Tahitian' (1934)

This exploration of identity is equally apparent in the varied way in which Sher-Gil paints herself in her diverse self-portraits. Her oil paintings depict her as a stern artist at her easel, a finely dressed woman from high society with a carefree smile wearing a sari and beads, and as a posing nude in the style of a ‘Tahitian’.

With ‘A Self Portrait as a Tahitian’ (1934), Sher-Gil is referring to Paul Gauguin’s numerous paintings of Tahitian women, re-situating his representational claim over the people of the South Sea Islands. Rather than performing as the muse, Sher-Gil claims the role of subject and author and interferes with the white colonial gaze.

During the five years she spent in Paris, Sher-Gil portrayed herself, family and friends as they moved in Bohemian circles. The piece ‘Young Girls’ (1932) depicts her sister and a friend in a state of relaxed undress against an indistinct interior.

It was this work that earned her a distinguished Gold Medal as well as the election as an associate of the Grand Salon. By achieving this feat at the age of 19, she became the youngest person to be an associate and remains the only Asian artist to have received this recognition.

Despite her success in Paris, Sher-Gil became increasingly drawn to India, declaring that ‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. But India belongs only to me’.

She also decried the lack of meaningful interactions with the country in artwork at the time, stating that ‘there are such wonderful, such glorious things in India, so many unexploited pictorial possibilities, that it is a pity that so few of us have ever attempted to look for them much less interpret them’.

As she spent more time in India, her modernist style became fused with the warm tones of the land she travelled through and with scenes of rural villages alongside the people that inhabited them. By comparing ‘Young Girls’ (1932) to ‘Three Girls’. (1935), the evolution of Sher-Gil’s work is particularly evident. The visible strokes in her earlier work continue in the later piece, but in a more subtle style, with the figures becoming increasingly abstracted. In contrast to the repose pictured in the earlier piece, ‘Three Girls’ carries a certain melancholy, as the women seem to be longing for something that may never come. This something may evoke Sher-Gil’s political sensibilities. As a sympathiser of the Indian National Congress, which was at the core of pursuing Indian independence under Mahatma Ghandi’s leadership, she was seeking to see change.

Sher-Gil's 'Young Girls' (1932) Sher-Gil's 'Three Girls' (1935)

Sher-Gil continued to paint striking portraits of Indian rural life, poverty and suffering under the British Raj, yet would never see them in an exhibition dedicated to her work. At the age of 28, only a few days before she was to launch her solo show, she passed away from unknown causes, which continue to be the subject of speculations.

Sher-Gil's 'Little Girl in Blue' (1934)

Despite her tragically short life, Sher-Gil has left her mark in the art world of the country that inspired her. She has been recognised as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the 20thcentury’ (Christies’, 2015), with the Government of India declaring her work to be National Art Treasures. In addition, just last year, Sher-Gil’s ‘The Little Girl in Blue’ (1934), was sold in India for a staggering 18.69 crore (approximately £116 m), setting a record price for the artist in the country.

Beth is a writer, maker and arts and culture enthusiast based in her adopted home of Manchester. Frequently found gallery hopping across the North West, she is also passionate about literature, comics, feminism and environmentalism. 

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