The early 1900s mark a time when two of the greatest female artists lived, whose influence on art has been quite prominent. Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil, both left a legacy so momentous that even after a century, young artists still find inspiration and solace in their work. Both portrayed femininity and woe. Their paintings were so moving that one can’t help but look twice.
Kahlo was born on 6th July 1907 to a German father and Mestiza mother in Mexico City. Sher-Gil was born only four years after Kahlo, on 30th January 1913, to an Indian father and a Hungarian Mother in Budapest. Under the influence of fathers who used photographs to portray their family members, Kahlo and Sher-Gil learned the art of self-expression through paintings.
Kahlo always liked the idea of sketching and art always interested her, but she never thought of it as a career option. She was a promising medical student until she met a bus accident which left her bed-ridden for 3 months. In those three months, Kahlo painted. She mentioned this period made her want to “begin again”. Her early works includes self-portraits, portraits of friends and family. Although she painted many spiritual and still life scenes, it was her self-portraits that caught the attention of the world.
Unlike Kahlo, Sher-Gil knew she wanted to pursue arts. Her uncle once visiting her family acknowledged her work. He critiqued her work helping her with the foundation of her artistic expression. She began taking painting lessons at the age of eight. Her early works include portraits of servants in her house. Sher-Gil's later work is a portrayal of daily life, when she was touring South India. During this period, she painted Three Girls (1934). It is a portrayal of three passive and grief-stricken girls.
The colours in the paintings are vibrant owing to the clothes of the girls but the girls seem dull and almost melancholic. She said, “I realized my real artistic mission, to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience,... to reproduce on canvas the impression those sad eyes created on me.” Amrita is said to have been ahead of her times and it is now evident. When a unified portrayal of women by India was to be goddess-like, Amrita revolutionised it by portraying them in a much real sense – in their daily life, doing chores, taking care of themselves.
She often painted naked women and many naked self-portraits, fiercely breaking down clichés. Rakhee Balarama, an art historian says, “At stake was not only a serious and viable artistic career as a woman, but the development of a subjectivity that was being defined through the self-portrait. Conscious of being both muse and maker, Sher-Gil took on the position of artist and object with a double consciousness of being both”.
It is often mentioned that due to her accident, Frida has been in a state of constant pain. Also, owing to a failed marriage with her husband, Diego Rivera, she found a way to channel her pain into art. One of her many famous self-portraits, The Broken Column stands out. She’s wearing a metal corset (polio support), her torso is split into two and her spine is replaced with a straight column. There are numerous amounts of nails piercing her face down to her right leg. She’s crying but her glare is still strong as ever. This painting is an epitome of her heavy usage of symbolism. The pain is almost personified and her tolerance of it is apparent.
Both Frida and Amrita had a critical and thoughtful approach towards portraying pain, femininity, women and their surroundings. Their portrayal of what they felt, perceived and how they lived was raw. Both artists depicted identity formation highly creatively, encouraging to celebrate one’s uniqueness.