Everytime someone talks or writes about the painter Amrita Sher-gil, the name Frida Kahlo is thrown in the mix of words, and almost always in vain. In vain because none of these writings or talks attempt to give a reason for this reference. All we get, at the maximum, is a vague statement about similarities in their painting styles or their social figures, said to be equal in the degree of unconventionality.
In this article, I try to outline the similarities and differences, between the two artists.
The fact that both the artists were born of mixed parentage, Kahlo was German-Mexican and Sher-gil, an Indian-Hungarian, is used as an argument for their similarity. But despite this common feature, their respective childhoods were in quite distant nature.
Sher-gil was born into a privileged home in Budapest, and grew up in the aristocratic circles of Europe. Her father, Umrao Sher-gil, a prominent Persian scholar, had met her mother and his second-wife, Marie Antoinette Gottesmann when she accompanied Princess Bamba Duleep Singh on her visit to Lahore and Shimla. Gottesmann was a Jewish-Hungarian singer with noble roots.
To promote further her early talent for drawing and painting, she was enrolled in a Florence art school called Santa Annunziata, at the age of eight, and then went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, at sixteen.
In contrast, Kahlo’s childhood was characterized by a conservative mother, a prolonged sickness, in the form of polio that left her with a limped gait, and an overall sense of melancholy, which would later influence her art.
She didn’t attend any formal art schools, and instead was studying to become a doctor at the prominent National Preparatory School. Her orientation towards a career in science ceased when a bus accident left her with multiple injuries, including a shattered pelvis and impaled uterus. The existential feelings and social immobilization that ensued during months of being bed-ridden practically turned her into a painter.
From early adolescence, Frida was politically conscious. In the PBS documentary on Kahlo’s life, Amy Stechler tells that she changed her birth year from 1907 to 1910, probably to make it lie in the same year as the start of the Mexican Revolution.
As she grew older, her political identity inclined towards embracing her Mexican heritage, easily reflected in her traditional clothing. She also joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. During this time, the 1930s, fascism was at rise in Europe and as the Art Story notes, there was an attempt to distance herself from her Germanic ancestry. This was evident in the name change from ‘Frieda’ to Frida. She also had reportedly said that her father was a Hungarian Jew, a claim that has been opposed.
The same fascism may also have resulted in an environment of hostility for Sher-gil, that would later culminate in her decision to settle in India.
By the age of 20, Sher-gil had mastered the formal European painting styles. This mastery earned her a Gold Medal at the Grand Salon in 1933 for the oil on canvas, ‘Young Girls’.
Another example of her proficiency is the ‘Sleeping Woman’ nude from 1933, which is an evocative painting, exposing the female body, and a beauty that has emerged when the subject is disarmed by sleep.
Another nude from 1934, titled ‘Self Portrait as Tahitian’ shows a shift in her choice of colours, towards muted light tones. The painting shows Sher-gil in a bare-chested posture, her face expressing contemplation, and the background rich with depictions of oriental life. A 1931 self-portrait fetched almost Rs 17 crore at a London auction in 2015.
Although this style wasn’t to stay, she had found concretion in her choice of subject- women of life.
Her decision to settle in India was preceded by a long stay in India, during which she traveled through the South in search for a newer, original style.
This event has been told by many as a longing for roots, and as an abdication of her older style, and with it, her half-european identity. Here, one might be tempted to draw parallels with Kahlo’s gravitation towards Mexico.
But this new art, and inspiration, was something else. As her nephew Vivan Sundaram aptly comments on the topic, “she didn’t abandon the west”. In fact, in her later works, she carried forward the experiments with oil paint, finding inspiration in the Medieval miniatures and Ajanta cave paintings, and attempting to distinguish herself from the prominent Bengali School.
In his review for Yashodhara Dalmia’s book on Sher-gil’s life, Khushwant Singh adds some details to this coming-home tale. In India, he says, “she was eager to win recognition… travelled across India… but found few buyers”.
An important work from this period is ‘Bride’s Toilet’, which is part of the South Indian trilogy. Extrapolating on its meaning a little, the painting can be called a study of the Indian social system, and how it related to women of the time, viewed from an outsider’s eye. The contrast between the status of the three women, shown masterfully in varying highlights, is unmistakable.
During her last years, the paintings had the subjects posing to suggest stillness, and from an non-indigenous observer’s eyes, a sense of simplicity in life. This stillness is often aided by vertical alignment and a controlled dark-hued palette. In contrast to this calm energy, her former works often communicate a vibrant mood.
An inherent sense of vanity can be observed in her oeuvre. This is noticeable in the conscious posture of the subjects, and even more so in the early series of self-portraits. These portraits often make up another argument of commonality with the Mexican painter. But Kahlo’s works diverge greatly, both in meaning and in their representation of ‘self’.
Kahlo’s life was marred by pain and her paintings, marking important events of her life, serve as renditions of her relationship with the pain. Her works can be comfortably defined as surrealist images of her insides, both physical and the non-physical emanating from it. Unsurprisingly then, in almost all her canvases, she used herself as the subject, never failing to include her iconic unibrow.
After her marriage to the celebrated painter Diego Rivera in 1929, art gradually turned into a full-time pursuit for Kahlo.
Examples of major artworks include ‘Frieda and Diego Rivera’, which was her expression of her trying on the new role of a traditional Mexican wife. When the relations soured between the couple, as a result of Rivera’s infidelity, out came the oil on metal, ‘A Few Small Nips’.
Her two failed pregnancies also drove her towards constructing revealing, and almost gory, paintings like the ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ and ‘My Birth’ in 1932. In 1940s, her health further deteriorated and she had to undergo a spinal surgery. Her coping up with the agony is symbolised in works like ‘The Broken Column’ and ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace’.
It can be easily said that the two personalities were ahead of their times, both as women and as artists. It can also be said that Amrita Sher-gil wouldn’t have liked the “Frida Kahlo of India” description that the art-circle has given her. As we have seen, her disagreement would have been justified too. The same injustice would prevail if we call Kahlo the “Sher-Gil of Mexico”, or Amitabh Bachchan the “Al Pacino of India”.