Rediscovered: Amrita Sher-Gil’s lost masterpiece
As an important portrait by the convention-defying painter Amrita Sher-Gil re-emerges after 90 years in private hands, Christie’s specialist Nishad Avari discusses the life and work of one of India’s greatest modern artists
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913--1941) is considered a pioneer of modern Indian art. In her short, exuberant life she was a radical force in India, presenting herself as a formidable, autonomous creative female.
Sher-Gil was born in Budapest in 1913. Her father was a Sikh aristocrat and an experimental photographer, while her highly strung Hungarian mother was a musician. They made a striking couple.
‘It was an unconventional background, combining cultural traditions that had rarely overlapped before,’ says Nishad Avari, head of Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale. ‘As a young girl, Amrita was surrounded by successful writers and artists.’
But after the ravages of the First World War, Hungary fell into civil strife and the family left Budapest for northern India, where they settled in the city of Shimla. Sher-Gil began to paint and write poetry. ‘Her uncle was an Indologist and a former painter, and he recognised her talent and encouraged her parents to nurture it,’ says Avari.
At 11 she won her first prize for painting, and soon after began to focus on the subjects that would define her work for the rest of her life: women’s sensuality, their work and their relationships with each other.
When she was 16, Amrita was expelled from her convent school for her atheism. The family moved to Paris so that she could study with Lucien Simon at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It was in this bohemian, avant-garde world, that Sher-Gil discovered the most original voices of the inter-war generation.
‘She gravitated to strong female figures,’ says Avari, ‘particularly the artist Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), who was known for her powerful and unconventional portraits of women.’
A curious and instinctively truthful artist, she worked to satisfy herself and was indifferent to the criticism of others, once writing: ‘I know that you will be angry with me and say I am a self-opinionated monkey, but I stick to my intolerant ideas and my convictions.’
In 1931 Sher-Gil met the art critic Denyse Proutaux, and was instantly captivated by her. ‘She went crazy about my hair and absolutely wanted to do my portrait with my hair loose,’ Proutaux later wrote.
The young critic was equally enchanted by Sher-Gil, writing to her future husband Philippe Dyvorne: ‘I’ve never known such an amazing girl… she has an intelligence and a personality like I had never met in a woman before, and a very great talent, very powerful and robust.’
Proutaux began sitting regularly for Sher-Gil and was amazed to find the artist’s room littered with books on philosophy and literature, including works by Romain Rolland, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw and Ibsen. ‘She has often arbitrary, but never mediocre, opinions of all of this,’ Proutaux wrote, ‘and I think she knows French literature better than I do.’
‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me’ — Amrita Sher-Gil
Over the next few months Sher-Gil completed four paintings of her friend. Portrait of Denyse (above) depicts Proutaux in a red dress against a floral background painted in an impressionistic style. ‘It is such a psychological portrait,’ says Avari. ‘She has balanced this stoic exterior with a vulnerability — there is doubt and determination in her expression. I think it is as much a portrait of Amrita as it is of Denyse.’
Proutaux also appears in the painting Young Girls, executed the same year and now held by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Avari describes it as a remarkable portrait and notes that it won the young artist her election as an associate of the Grand Salon — ‘a rare honour for a foreign woman of 18’.
Then suddenly, in 1934, Sher-Gil decided to return to India, countering her father’s arguments that Indian society would be too stifling for her strong-willed nature with the emphatic declaration: ‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.’
In 1938 she married her penniless Hungarian cousin Victor Egan, angering her mother, who hoped her beautiful daughter would become the wife of a rich aristocrat. The couple eventually settled in Lahore, amid a lively artistic community; but, within the year, Sher-Gil died in circumstances that remain mysterious to this day.
Since her untimely death at the age of 28, Sher-Gil has become an influential figure in Indian culture. ‘She broke the mould,’ says Avari, ‘both as a female artist and as a professional. She demonstrated that modern Indian art could be very different from what was imagined in academic circles at the time.’
After her death, her family bequeathed a large number of paintings to the National Gallery of Art in New Delhi, and in 1976 the Indian Government recognised her as a National Treasure, making it illegal to take her art out of the country without official permission. As a result, it is rare to see a painting by Sher-Gil on the open market. The last time one of her works was offered at Christie’s — Untitled (Self Portrait) from 1931 — was in 2015. It sold for £1,762,500 ($2.7 million), the second highest auction price for a work by the artist.
‘She achieved more than most artists do in a lifetime’ — specialist Nishad Avari
According to Avari, Portrait of Denyse is one of the few remaining Sher-Gil paintings in private hands, and it is expected to fetch up to $2.8 million.
In an interview with the BBC, the artist’s nephew Vivan Sundaram said that Sher-Gil’s enduring appeal lies in her constantly questioning nature and her proto-feminist position. Towards the end of her life, she wrote in her indomitable, unguarded voice about the struggle to reconcile being an artist with the societal demands of becoming a wife and mother: ‘Little by little I realise that every person carries within herself a calling against which it is hopeless to fight.’
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In the end, art won out. ‘I don’t think she was ever one to give up her ideas,’ says Avari. ‘Despite her short life, she achieved more than most artists do in a lifetime and she paved the way for generations to come.’