Amrita Sher Gil Shringaar

MUNICH, GERMANY - Haus der Kunst presents "Amrita Sher-Gil. An Indian Artist Family in the 20th Century", on view through January 7, 2007.  The exhibition tells the story of an Indian artist family of three generations by uniting the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil with the photographs of her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, with the digitally worked photographs of her nephew, Vivan Sundaram. 

The three positions demonstrate how the perception of identity through self-determination has changed since the late colonial period.  The works also serve as convincing examples of the non-concurrent development of modernity and modernism in Europe and India and thus also for the concept of a multiple modern.


Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest in 1913 and grew up in a cosmopolitan family interested in art. Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, came from an aristocratic family in north India's Punjab and her mother, Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, was a Hungarian of upper class background.  Because of the First World War, the family lived in Budapest until 1921, after which it lived on the estates of the father's side in northern India for eight years.

When the family recognized Amrita's exceptional talent, they made it possible for her to go to Paris for a time, where, at just 16, she started to study at the École des Beaux Arts and soon took part in the Bohemian scene there.  From the beginning, nudes, portraits and still lifes were her favored genres.  She thus became open to the influence of Realism, foremost that of Paul Gauguin; Surrealism and geometric abstraction, in contrast, left no obvious marks in her work.

Vivan Sundaram Retake Of AmritaIn 1934 Amrita Sher-Gil returned to India. Her first portraits after her return were characterized by a melancholy reminiscent of the intense and vague yearning of the Romantic period.  The art historian Deepak Ananth related these portraits to Amrita's situation at the time. Already in Paris, Amrita realized "in some strange inexplicable way," that her "destiny as a painter" lay in India.  Her rich pallet lead her professor to remark that she was "not really in her element in the grey studios of the West."   Her return to India became, in fact, a kind of self-discovery voyage for the artist that brought about, both contextually and formally, a completely new orientation: "It was the vision of a winter in India - desolate, yet strangely beautiful - of endless tracks of luminous yellow-grey land, of dark-bodied, sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently looking almost like silhouettes and over which an indefinable melancholy reigns.  It was different from the India, voluptuous, colorful, sunny and superficial, the India so false to the tempting travel posters that I had expected to see." (Amrita Sher-Gil).

Amrita Sher-Gil's characteristic fascination with the color red, the tangible proximity of her figures with their viewers and the dark tones of her backgrounds were all already present in her work, Three Girls (1935).  In Hill Men und Hill Women (likewise from 1935) she discovers her favored motif, peasant life and poverty.  Her color scheme is vibrant, glowing and intense.  The representation, however, at first seems impersonal because the artist does not approach her motif in a narrative manner, which would emphasize a specific event, but rather allows a kind of tableau vivant to come to life.  Her often slightly superimposed figures are posed silently, statically, icon-like. In a more sublime manner than would be the case with an anecdotic representation, the figures allude to the meaningful moment, characteristic of the tableau vivant.

The plasticity and inertia of her figures, their grace and the ephemeral contact, with which they graze each other, reveal how strongly Amrita Sher-Gil was impressed by early Indian sculpture.  In 1936 she embarked on an extensive voyage through the country that lead her, among other places, to the Buddhist cliff paintings of Ajanta (6th/7th centuries).  The south Indian frescos of Mattancheri (17th century), as well as the medieval Moghul and Rajput miniature paintings of northern India were, for Amrita Sher-Gil, also a kind of artistic revelation.  Her correspondence with the art historian Karl Khandalavala sheds light on this.

During her trip through India Amrita Sher-Gil also came to know of the isolate lifestyle of the women living on feudal estates, the way they passed the time and their, sometimes erotic, desires.  She addresses this theme, with its intimate mood, in the works The Swing, Woman at Bath and Woman Resting on Charpoy (all from 1940).

Amrita Sher Gil CamelsAmrita Sher-Gil had her first exhibition in Bombay in 1936 and, since then, her work has become more and more recognized and admired on the Indian subcontinent, too.  Her early death in Lahore, however, brought a sudden end to a very promising talent.  Not yet 29 years old, Amrita died from a quick and intense disease, whose actual cause has not been revealed to the public.

During her short life, Amrita Sher-Gil tried to "conquer all at once: the alienation caused by her class, her Indo-European ancestry and her gender," according to art historian Geeta Kapur.  This alienation, however, also enabled an encounter with India as the experiencing and recognition of the others; this distinguishes Amrita Sher-Gil from Gauguin and the Orientalists, for whom the Orient was primarily an archive of stereotypes and projection planes for their own suppressed desires.  The Modernism of Amrita Sher-Gil was based on her completely autonomous understanding of India and her ability to bring together sources of inspiration from both the modern West and historic India.

The decision of the Sher-Gil Family to leave an extensive portion of Amrita's estate to the Indian government became the basis for the foundation of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.  In Europe Amrita Sher-Gil's works are still largely unknown (exhibitions to date: "Six Indian Painters," Tate Britain, London,1982; "Indian Artists in France," Centre National des Art Plastiques, Paris, 1985; "Amrita Sher-Gil: the Indian Painter and Her French and Hungarian Connections," Ernst Museum, Budapest, 2001). The photographs of Vivan Sundaram were recently exhibited in the Sepia Gallery in New York.

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil: Umrao Singh (1870-1954), an anti-British nationalist, was a reader of philosophy and literature, as well as a talented photographer.  He was first given due credit by Stuart Hall and Mark Sealy in their publication "Different" (Phaidon, 2001).  In his many self-portraits Umrao Singh presents himself as a pensive Sanskrit scholar or as a practicer of yoga.  His self-awareness is nurtured, thus, by a cultural tradition that was destroyed or degraded by colonial politics.

Umrao Singh also preserved Amrita Sher-Gil's radiant appearance in hundreds of photographs.  Amrita used this posing for the camera as an opportunity to express her self-image, characterized by re-invention and masquerading: at times Indian, at times Hungarian and at times clothed and coiffured in the fashionable Parisian style of the 1930s.  The fact that she constantly assumed new roles is not just a sign of playfulness or her ability to adopt different cultural contexts; at least since Vivan Sundaram's montages of these photographs it has become clear that the artist's constant transformation of identity harbors moments of division and crisis.

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Jung on Art

"Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. To perform this difficult task it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being."