Sunday, 27 March 2016

Women You Should Know - Amrita Sher-Gil by Nicole Lavay

Women You Should Know:
Amrita Sher-Gil
by Nicole Lavay

I’ve always loved art history, but never so fiercely as when I was a teenager. I grew up in a conservative suburban community where my pink hair and black clothes made me an oddball. My love for the arts and women didn’t help me fit in either, but it was okay, because I’d discovered something more interesting than the life around me: the lives of 19th and 20th century artists.

I took Advanced Placement Art History, where I excelled. The tales of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Warhol all excited me so much. These were people who moved to big cities, had large circles of artistic friends, went on adventures to foreign lands and then used their experiences to create something new and change the world.

My text book contained hundreds of pages on art from Europe, mostly by white male artists. Women artists didn’t appear in groups of more than two per chapter until modernism, and I found their biographies and the representation of their art lacking. The definitive canon of art history I was shown in high school neglected the female artists I’d later come to love.

The lives of real women artists were never presented to me as interesting or exciting. Luckily, I went to a college where I received the education I needed to understand that women artists are creative, capable, smart and just as bold as I’ve always wanted to be. I was given the tools to discover artists I could relate to. The biography of Amrita Sher-Gil caught hold of my mind, and lately, as I try and navigate the path to forging my own creative life, I find myself inspired by hers.

Born in 1913 to an Indian father and a Hungarian Jewish mother, she spent her unique childhood between Europe and India, completing her artistic training in Paris. She painted self-portraits of herself, nude, which was just as scandalous in the 1930’s as putting nude selfies up on the internet is today. Sher-Gil chose to paint portraits of herself and her sister honestly without ‘oriental’ details, as other Indian artists catering to the European gentry did. I love thinking about Sher-Gil, so radical at age 17, giving no fucks, and confronting racism and sexism in the arts by depicting herself as an ‘average’ subject, rather than as an oriental fantasy from a far away land. The independent young artist found a place for herself in bohemian Paris. She caused quite a stir through her artistic feats, and in her personal life, as she was known to wear her sari and conduct affairs with both men and women.

Sher-Gil won national competitions, and her incredible skill was promising, but her mixed-race heritage set her apart from her contemporaries during the dusk of European colonialism. Never one to choose conventionality, the artist said ‘good-bye’ to the capitol of the art world and began her career in India, where she painted with the celebrated revolutionaries of the Bengal School of Art.

Amrita Sher-Gil, "Group of Three Girls," 1935
Her return to India brought an immediate shift in her artistic style, and her subject matter, too. She spent 1937 touring rural southern India, finding inspiration in the daily lives of local women. She began painting village scenes, group portraiture, and images of average Indians, especially those living in poverty.

Her new work was a reflection of the changing Indian political landscape, as the colonized people demanded independence from the British. Her paintings explored Indian identity on a national level. Sher-Gil didn't orientalize or romanticize the lives of villagers living in poverty. She painted the lives of women, without sexualizing or romanticizing her subjects. These women, who break away from European beauty standards are not on display or eroticized for the gaze of the viewer. They are strong, sturdy, grounded, almost defiant.

Unfortunately, only four years after her return to India Sher-Gil died at age 28, after slipping into a coma from a hemorrhage suspected to be the result of a botched abortion. Her untimely death came just days before the opening of her first major solo exhibition in Lahore.

Amrita Sher-Gil was a masterful painter whose amazing technical skill wowed critics. Her legacy lies not only in her skill, but in her revolutionary choice to paint the average Indian during the fight for independence and represent women at the beginning of the women’s rights movement. Adventurous, bold, and self-determined, Sher-Gil is so awesome it makes me incredibly sad that she’s virtually unknown by Western audiences.

Sher-Gil fearlessly asserted her identity again and again throughout her life, defying convention and breaking barriers, both in her personal life and career. She lived an artistically rich life full of adventure; looking at her art reminds me to live life without creative limitations.

Nicole Lavay is an art historian, educator, writer, and photographer based in San Francisco. She has worked at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and recently taught English with the Académie de Nantes. She currently spends her time traveling, learning new languages, and trying to read as many books as possible while preparing to work in South Korea.

Editor's Note:  I'm so grateful to find out about Amrita Sher-Gil's life and work! If you liked this piece, you can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives  from March 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.  If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!

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