05 April - 08 May, 2019
In a poem from 1934 Amrita Sher-Gil begins, ‘Perhaps it will fly away if I get up?’ First written in Hungarian, and found on a scrap of paper, the poem is an oblique ode, tinged by the existential, in which she is grasping at something fleeting, but exquisite: ‘Because I still want to say a lot/ Because rainy dawns are still needed.’ Her writing is unflinching in the same manner that her self-portraits are. Sher-Gil is most eloquent when she paints herself, because she is at her most daring. In the oil-on-canvas Self Portrait in Blue Sari (c. 1937) it is as though she is seated in the only sunbeam cast from a cloudy sky. Caught in its brilliance she is poised, watching us with glinting, intelligent eyes. Her hands remain unfinished, or perhaps this is how she intended them: slipping into a thinly painted, bruise-blue sari. As with every self-portrait, she is painting herself into becoming.
At the moment she wrote the poem, Sher-Gil was still living Paris, and by the time she paints herself in the blue sari, she has moved back to India and is working on her own, unique language. The works gathered here lead us there: early sketches and watercolours, of the period 1926-30, which already bear the mastery of form and composition from a painter of great prowess. Sher-Gil’s watercolours look astonishingly like oils. They are layered with purposeful brushwork, and are thick with paint and depth in heady shades of ochre and burgundy, aquamarine and silver speckled midnight blue. Where the watercolours give us delicate characters and settings, her sketches and nude studies are Olympian: sturdy figures with elegant poses drawn in charcoal or pencil on paper.
Many of the works here lead a double life. Sher-Gil has left on their backs an annotation, a drawing, or a dedication of some kind. This lends to the discreet nature of this collection, where each is a tenderly private note, a moment that requires further explanation. We are privy to a secret, slippery mind. In the paintings this is vividly apparent in the manner by which figures tremble and melt into literary tableaus, full of hidden tricks and configurations.
- Skye Arundhati Thomas