Amrita Sher-Gil, not ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was not born in India but in Hungary, to a Sikh aristocrat father and a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish mother. Such heritage would, in turn, enable a unique artistic perspective for the future artist.

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Self portrait at the easel (1930)

The family relocated to India when Amrita was a child, and here she continued to pursue an early talent for painting. The artist’s burgeoning self expression soon manifested in a declaration of atheism, a statement which enabled her expulsion from her convent school.

Later Amrita studied art in Florence and was hugely inspired by the wealth of Western Renaissance, avant-garde and modernist artworks which surrounded her. At the age of only sixteen, Amrita visited Paris and was already painting in earnest.

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The artist returned to India in 1934 however, as she longed to explore the traditions of Indian art as key to her own part Indian identity. Here Amrita was inspired by a rich history of Pahari and Mughal painting styles and philosophies. As a result her own work began to highlight her tours of Southern India, in not only terms of colour and atmosphere, but also reflecting an understanding and connecting empathy with her subjects. Amrita painted villagers and rural lives, with equal respect. Her painting The Bride’s Toilet (1937) for example, reflects the rights, rituals and limitations of female lives, one of many works enabling unique female themes and perspective for the era.

brides-toiletThe Bride’s Toilet (1937)

Despite her privileged background, Amrita was very much a proponent of challenging both poverty and injustice, while supporting political freedoms for an India still under the rule of the British Raj.

Amrita, who had married her Hungarian husband Victor, later moved to Lahore in early 1941, a city significant for both its role in the independence movement of India and Pakistan and for its then artistic community. The artist continued her prolific work here, while having affairs with both men and women.

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Amrita and Denyse Proutaux, Villennes-sur-Seinr, 1932

The bisexual Amrita had already scandalised the art world with such paintings as the Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1937) reflecting her half naked body in an artwork which questioned ideas of cultural identity and exotic cliches. Despite white male artists placing their own ideology upon women of colour as object for centuries, an Indian female artist utilising her own body as subject was deemed shockingly unacceptable. Amrita however rejected the Orientalist stereotypes in Western modernism, by creating work which not only highlighted herself and other real people, but challenged Imperialist perceptions in an era of ongoing British rule.

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Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934)

In December of 1941, just before the opening of her first major Lahore show, Amrita became ill, went into a coma and died. The artist was just 28 years old. The cause of her death is not clear, but there are some suggestions that Amrita became ill after an unsafe abortion. The artist’s mother accused Amrita’s husband of her murder although no charges were ever brought against him.

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Despite her short life, Amrita created a huge body of work which continues to be celebrated for its affection without sentimentality, its challenges without overt confrontation.

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The painter is often referred to as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. Like Frida, Amrita was an unconventional woman of her time, bold and pioneering in her life, her expression of her sexuality and in her art. However, it is more apt to refer to Amrita as simply herself, an artist and pioneer of modernist 20th century art, whose talent defies a need for comparison. She was quite simply unique, creating a lasting legacy all of her own. Her work not only reflected and aided a growing insurgence of Indian strength in identity, but significantly linked both East and West, reflective of  Amrita Sher-Gil’s own sense of self and self rule as both artist and woman.

Hannah Höch, and the Deconstruction of The Beautiful Girl

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was a German artist who was part of  the early 20th century European avant-garde art movement known as Dada.  Such artists emphasised the absurd and irrational in their art, aiming at protesting a bourgeois and capitalist society in the aftermath of World War one.

Höch was one of a small number of female artists involved in the male dominated movement. Her work clearly reflects the importance of a female perspective, amongst many male voices, as she sought to highlight specific themes in relation to women and society.  Höch created her photomontage,  Das Schone Madchen/The Beautiful Girl (1919-20), in an era which saw the rise of the ideal of the European ‘New Woman’.  This was a time of women’s suffrage, and demands for female rights as citizens in society and within the workforce.

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Höch utilised clippings from women’s magazines and other media to comment on the contradictions and complexities of female roles in a rapidly modernizing, yet also compromised post war German society. While a common medium today, the artist was one of the originators of photomontage.

The Beautiful Girl is a deliberately unsettling piece which highlights women not as a rising autonomous subjects but emphasised  as objects within a growing industrialised and corporate landscape. The work is created by considered deconstruction and reconstruction of everyday monochrome, sepia and colour pictorial media photographic imagery. The busy, disjointed arrangement of larger and smaller pieces, in turn, produces a composition which is deliberately disorientating for the viewer.

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Höch’s work utilises realistic imagery which has been reorganised to be visually and compositionally confronting.  Female body parts and advertising imagery are placed in conjunction with symbols of bourgeois commodities and machine components, wheels and crankshafts. By foregrounding the dominating image of the cut out and detached, floating modern ‘feminine’ hairstyle, Höch points towards the gendered themes of the work while creating a top-heavy sense of disorder.

The Beautiful Girl was created during the Weimer Republic,  an era in which women’s roles where being explored, not only regarding voting rights and work, but also in terms of female sexuality and identity. However, the reality and struggle of women’s everyday lives was one that often contradicted the ideals and expectations being placed upon them.

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Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969

Höch wanted the viewer to be disturbed by notions of gender in society as she presented conflicting ideas of femininity (and masculinity). This was in conjunction with her use of repetitive elements, e.g. oval wheel, circular badges and watch, to project a backdrop of chaotic capitalist fever. Höch deconstructs and subverts the intentions of the advertising and glamorous media imagery she utilises. Rather than attractive, the colours are sickly; the decapitated female figure is reconstructed as part commodity, while a model stares blankly out of a disembodied eye. Women are reflected as not only denied autonomy but humanity itself, as the processes of corporate modernism envelop them.

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Höch is not simply addressing and protesting the issues of early 20th century European life like her male contemporaries, but enabling a vital female-centric reading of the themes presented.  The artist however struggled, as was the case with many women in the arts, to be recognised and valued on an equal basis as the men around her.  Höch stated that women artists were dismissed as “gifted amateurs’’ and denied professional status.

The fact that Höch was an innovative pioneer in both her artistic field and in highlighting a female perspective, despite the injustices of a male dominated culture, reflects both her talent and resilience – common traits for so many of her fellow women artists.