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Behind Sher-Gil
Amrita Sher-Gil, 'Three Girls,' 1935

Behind Sher-Gil's 'Tahitian'

Saloni Mathur, a UCLA art historian, reconsiders the career of Amrita Sher-Gil with reference to Gauguin and Van Gogh, putting modernist painting in a global frame.

How could art history have missed this painting?


“Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me,” declared Amrita Sher-Gil, the Hungarian-Indian painter who died mysteriously in 1941 at the age of 28. In a lecture sponsored by the Center for India and South Asia, UCLA Associate Professor of Art History Saloni Mathur explored the legacy of this biracial, bicultural and bisexual artist through the lens of one of her less-examined pieces, “Self-Portrait as Tahitian" (1934), which overtly references the French painter Paul Gauguin.

Best known for paintings of recognizably Indian subjects, particularly her “dark-bodied, sad-faced” peasant women, Sher-Gil made much of her formal study of painting in Paris during the height of modernism. So, although the influence of Gauguin is easy to explain, it also presents a “dizzying series of questions," said Mathur.

Amrita Sher-Gil, 'Self-Portrait as Tahitian,' 1934 (oil on canvas)

Click image to enlarge 'Self-Portrait as Tahitian,' 1934 (oil on canvas)

“What precisely was meant by Sher-Gil’s self-conscious self-placement into the body of a Tahitian nude? How could art history have missed this painting, so deliberate a citation of art historical precedent?" asked Mathur. "And how can such far-reaching coordinates – Paul Gauguin in the 1890’s, Amrita Sher-Gil in the 1930’s, Paris, Tahiti, India, Hungary – be plotted onto our existing map of modernism’s unfolding in the twentieth century? “

Mathur guided her audience through a close reading of the painting, pointing out the stark differences between Sher-Gil’s Tahitian and most of Gauguin's similar works. First, the woman in the painting is dressed more plainly than Gauguin’s women and her hair is not adorned with flowers. She is not portrayed as a sexual object ready for consumption. Also, the woman appears not in the luxurious tropical landscape of Gaugin’s work, but in a small room where the “semiotics of desire” are “suffocated.” Sher-Gil, said Mathur, “rejects the fetishism of Gauguin.”

The very demeanor of the subject is unlike Gauguin’s female figures.

“She is poised and businesslike. She’s reflected in men’s desire but she’s in command,” Mathur commented.

Mathur also pointed out the Japanese figures that serve as a kind of wallpaper in the background of the painting. Although Japanese aesthetics were then in vogue in India, Mathur posited that Sher-Gil was making an allusion to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Père Tanguy," which includes Japanese figures in the background as well. In the end, Mathur said, Sher-Gil preferred Van Gogh’s more hopeful project and message.

Tellingly, the female figure in “Self-Portrait as Tahitian” stands against the backdrop of a menacing shadow, seemingly that of a man. The shadow can be seen as a symbol of the dominating influence of the two painters whose legacy Sher-Gil is invoking.

Mathur argued that the painting is indeed a reworking of European masterpieces by a mixed-race woman who was split culturally and ethnically between Europe and the subcontinent. It is the ultimate statement of her bicultural nature.

Finally, Sher-Gil left Paris, where she had painted “Self-Portrait as Tahitian,” for India, where she dedicated  herself to painting “Indian subalterns." The preoccupation with human sadness is possibly a reflection of “her own misery, her own exile, unsettled relationship to home.” In fact, her very last unfinished painting was a landscape of India, the country that could almost be called her home.

Mathur drew amply upon recent scholarship, explaining that the discipline of art history has radically revised its thinking about Indian art in the past decades. Previously, she said, Indian artists were viewed as primitive unless visibly influenced by Europeans, and in that case they were frequently viewed as inauthentic. As Mathur put it, “The indigenous artist was judged as behind and, more damaging, as un-Indian.” Today, thanks to the work of art critics such as Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur, the complexity of artists such as Sher-Gil is better understood by Western audiences, said Mathur.