Untitled (Hungarian Village Church) | Mumbai | oil on canvas | 80.3 x 56.8 cm.
"Amrita Sher-Gil did not have world enough, nor time enough, to realize in full her rare aesthetic vision."
Raul de Loyola Furtado, art historian
Amrita Sher-Gil was a child of international Modernism and Indian tradition, whose short life made an indelible impression on the history of art in India. Born the year Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature, her life was cut short in 1941, the same year as Tagore’s death. Like Tagore, she made paintings that were both of their time and transcended it.
Born in Budapest, she was the daughter of a Hungarian mother and Sikh father — bohemian parents who moved in international artistic circles, fostering her creative spirit at a very young age. Her talent proved prodigious. At 16, she enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, under the tutelage of the esteemed French painter, Lucien Simon. That first year, she won first prize in the university’s portrait and still life competitions. The following year, in 1930, she exhibited alongside Tagore at his public artistic debut, in Paris. Over the next three years she would show at the Grand Salon, in Paris, where she was elected an associate and won a gold medal for her 1932 painting, Young Girls, and at the Sale de Tuilleries, also in Paris. During her time in Europe, Sher-Gil experimented with various styles and artistic personae, coming into contact with work by post-Impressionist painters like Cezanne, Modigliani, and Gauguin, which would come to bear a strong influence on her work.
The European art world had treated Sher-Gil well, yet she felt a strong pull toward her father’s native India — a place she had only visited. As she noted, “Towards the end of 1933 I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange, inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.” She moved to India in 1934 and soon moved away from the more academic, realist traditions she had pursued in Europe, incorporating as more Modernist visual vocabulary — heightened colors, bolder, more decisive lines, flatter compositions. She rejected the style of the Bengal School in vogue at the time, looking instead to older Indian traditions for inspiration, such as the cave paintings at Ajanta and Ellora and the 17th Century miniaturist traditions of the Mughal dynasty.
Sher-Gil was particularly interested in the struggles of ordinary life, and in establishing ways of expressing the Indian experience that broke through the glossed-over, picturesque gaze of the Orientalist West. “I am personally trying to be,” she wrote, “through the medium of line, color and design, an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad.”
In 1938 she went back to Hungary to marry her cousin, Victor Egan; the couple returned to India a year later. Just three years later, she died as a result of mysterious circumstances, one of India’s most well-regarded living painters. She was 28.