A Retake of Sher-Gil’s ‘Self-Portrait as Tahitian’

Saloni Mathur

The nude figure in the painting, Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1934), is striking in her composure; she is resolutely female, self-possessed, and full of repose. The artist – Amrita Sher-Gil, the part-Indian, part-Hungarian painter who stands at the cosmopolitan helm of modern Indian art – was apparently responding to Gauguin’s stylisation of the female nude, one of modernism’s master tropes for the colonial “other”, by inhabiting, with her own corporeality, this over-burdened representational form. In her painting, “Tahitian-ness” takes the form of her own brown body; but it is also projected through her straight, black hair, which is tied in an unfussy ponytail, marking simplicity or indigeneity as the absence of couture.

I recall experiencing a sense of vertigo on first encountering this painting in response to the dizzying sets of questions it raised. What were the conditions that made possible such an account of Gauguin by a woman and a colonial subject in 1934? 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? And how could such far-reaching coordinates – Paul Gauguin in the 1890s, Amrita Sher-Gil in the 1930s, Paris, Tahiti, India, Hungary – be plotted onto our existing map of modernism’s unfolding in the 20th century?

Upon arriving in the subcontinent soon after completing this painting, Sher-Gil announced that: “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and many others. India belongs only to me.”1 As the first Indian to receive art training in Paris, where she attended the École des Beaux-Arts from 1929 to 1932, the biracial, bicultural and bisexual Sher-Gil, described recently by Time magazine as “shockingly modern”,2 both physically embodied the predicament of “belonging” to the West, and painstakingly mined its artistic training, formal vocabularies and painterly paradigms to facilitate her legendary return to India. Even so, she was aware as she boasted, according to her friend, the writer Mulk Raj Anand, “that she was not on firm ground in India”.3

Self-Portrait as Tahitian speaks in powerful ways to a number of contemporary intellectual concerns: the profound and intractable global entanglements of modernism, the cross-cultural currents of the early 20th century, the place of primitivism and orientalism within the discourses of the modern; the avant-garde’s treatment of the female nude; and the bravado of the young woman who offered the statement while studying in Paris at the age of 21.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1934). Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

In this essay, I argue for the relevance of Self-Portrait as Tahitian for understanding Sher-Gil’s entire pictorial practice, and the pivotal place of this painting in her short, but focused, artistic trajectory. As others have acknowledged, Sher-Gil’s self-portraits during her time in Paris – 19 in all – are rather unlike the rest of her work, standing apart from the studies of European subjects and models she also painted in Paris, or the pioneering portraits of what she saw as India’s “dark-bodied, sad-faced”4 communities that made her artistic career in the subcontinent. In these self-images, mostly painted between 1929 and 1932 while she was still a student at the École des Beaux Arts, Sher-Gil appears to be trying on different skins, in part – as the critic, Geeta Kapur, has suggested – to “break the yolk-bag of her narcissism.”5 However, Self-Portrait as Tahitian, which stands precisely at the moment of transition between her “Western” and “Indian” bodies of work, suggests an aspiration of a different sort. A number of elements in the painting point to Sher-Gil’s preparation for India, while exposing her awareness and sense of trepidation about the representational dilemmas that lay ahead. Self-Portrait as Tahitian is an exemplary negotiation by a female protagonist of the masculine paradigm of the modern artist and a theatrical intervention into the question of the female nude, staged through an ambitious, but uncertain, colonial subjectivity. As I will show, it is the kind of cultural text that makes possible dynamic ways of thinking about the vast canvas of historical entanglements within modernism, and stimulates out of necessity comparative approaches to discrepant social fields that present a challenge to the authority of existing national frames.

In what follows, I explore how Sher-Gil’s self-portrait served to articulate and legitimate her own “avant-garde gambit”6 in the heightened political climate of India in the 1930s, a decade of intense nationalist consciousness on the part of the subject nation, whose independence was attained in 1947. I conclude, however, by pursuing what I view as the most consequential omission in the little attention the painting has received thus far, namely, the Japanese motifs that make up the curious backdrop for Sher-Gil’s performance of indigenism as a Tahitian woman. By approaching the Japanese subtext of her painting through the lens of recent understandings of Japonisme within modernism, I argue that Self-Portrait as Tahitian conceals a deep engagement on the part of Sher-Gil with the strategies of self-portraiture and acts of masquerade undertaken by both Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh in the late 1880s, in preparation for their famous collaboration in Arles.  In the end, I propose – contrary to convention – that Sher-Gil’s self-portrait is not merely a sign of the artist’s stylistic debt to the primitivist styles and colours of Gauguin in Polynesia, typically formulated by Sher-Gil’s biographers as her “Gauguinesque lust for sensuousness and colour”,7 or as the symptom of an unexamined gesture of “neo-primitivism”. In fact, the painting also expresses a crucial connection to the radical paradigm of identity presented by van Gogh, which offered Sher-Gil an alternative model for her gesture of outreach towards the “poor and downtrodden” people of India. What is significant about Sher-Gil’s embrace of van Gogh, I will argue, is that it exposes the precariousness of the moment of manoeuvre enacted by Self-Portrait as Tahitian, the forms of disalignment and difference at stake in this act of interpolation and reinvention, and the drive on the part of the young female artist to adopt and adapt Europe’s modernist imagination to the outer reaches of art history’s world stage.

Polynesia, Primitivism and the Female Nude

The woman in Self-Portrait as Tahitian is, in fact, only partially nude. Sher-Gil has covered herself, from the waist-down, with a pale jade Polynesian wrap, but there is no floral pattern, no vibrant colour, no flower in her hand or hair – all of which were among Gauguin’s signature tropes in offering up for his European viewers the islands of the South Seas as a lush sexual paradise.8 In general, Sher-Gil’s sexuality is not depicted through the terms of the French male painter’s preoccupation with the ripe fertility of Tahitian women, which he symbolised, for example, through the freshness of a flower – its readiness, if you like, to be “plucked”. Amrita’s body is not offered for consumption in the manner of the fearful, reclining nude of Nevermore (1897), or the rear-view portrait of Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching) (1892), paintings that reveal, in Hal Foster’s terms, the “crisis of white heterosexual masculinity” that stands at the core of Gauguin’s primitivist encounter.9 Instead, Sher-Gil presented herself in a three-quarter profile view, with full red lips (could that be lipstick she is wearing?), hands crossed in an “x” shape below her bare, robust breasts. The entire stance, and the impertinence of the painted lips, depart unequivocally from the disempowering portrayal of Gauguin’s female subjects, whose erotic beauty was inevitably defined by their proximity to nature and their “animalistic” sexual states. And yet, the self-sufficiency of Sher-Gil in her Tahitian guise is set against the shadowy presence of a male figure, recalling the ominous doppelgängers that Gauguin himself included in several pictures to signal his own presence in the scene. In Sher-Gil’s painting, by contrast, the shadow does not appear as threatening as Gauguin’s forbidding harbingers of death. It evokes, instead, the daunting predicament of the young female artist, as she strove to make an artistic maneuver notable for its lack of historical precedent – namely, the re-working of modern Western painting for India – through the aesthetic terms made available to her by a previous generation of modern artists in Europe.

“The painting makes visible both the European provenance of primitivism, and the radical interruptions of its formations – its gendered subversions, its circuitous migrations, and its gestures of reproduction and difference – in and out of the colonial sphere.”

Self-Portrait as Tahitian may thus be seen as part of the young female protagonist’s broader attempt to subvert the modernist conventions of the female nude, which began with the charcoal sketches she produced diligently from models during art school, and continued after her return to India. Her 1933 painting, Professional Model, for example, depicted not the iconic beauty of the female body, but a saggy, middle-aged, nude woman, slouched and slightly haggard in appearance. The model, we know, was suffering from tuberculosis; the mood is that of sadness and alienation.10 In another striking picture, Two Girls (1939), Sher-Gil portrayed a brown and a white woman together in their nudity ambiguously, as possible lovers, or in an alternative reading, as a form of self-portraiture that projected her own racially divided self.11 In one of her final paintings, Woman on Charpoy (1940), Sher-Gil brought the theme of the reclining nude, ambitiously, by way of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) and the South Indian painter, Ravi Varma’s existing engagement with the trope, to the social environment of rural women in South Asia. Here, Sher-Gil used the colour red to convey a distinctive “semiotics of desire”, one that expressed both woman’s sexual yearning, and the repression of female sexuality in the subcontinent.12

Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Girls (1935). Collection National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (acc. 982). Image courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

A recurring theme within the nationalist celebration of Amrita Sher-Gil has been the issue of the young painter’s relationship to Gauguin, a debt that has been seen for decades as a series of stylistic clichés. For earlier critics, like W.G. Archer and Karl Khandalavala, Sher-Gil’s “passionate adhesion” to Gauguin seemed “almost to have haunted her.”13 They argued that Amrita was “missing India” during her time in Paris, and identified with Gauguin’s “sun hotted, joyous exuberant colour which to her symbolized her half-forgotten homeland,” and that “filled a void” within her while in Europe.14 For these writers, Gauguin’s approach to colour played a “supreme role” in her art, but by the end of the journey, she achieved a technical transcendence, and “the result was totally new.”15 The narrative they constructed thus emphasised the primacy of Sher-Gil’s attraction to Gauguin, but also her masterful overcoming of his style, which was heralded as part of an indigenous victory for modern painting in the subcontinent. At times, however, the critics’ preoccupation with the relationship also produced some more paradoxical results: as W.G. Archer stated obtusely, for Sher-Gil “Gauguin was India, and when at last she returned, India itself became Gauguin.”16

In more recent scholarship, the question of Sher-Gil’s relationship to Gauguin has been entangled with the conundrum of the inheritance of primitivism, described by one feminist critic as a “white, Western and preponderantly male quest for an elusive object whose very condition of desirability resides in some form of distance and difference, whether temporal or geographical.”17 It is by now well known that the story of Gauguin’s flight from civilisation, his voyage outward from the metropole to the colony, projected as an “earthly paradise”, earned him the dubious distinction of being the father of modern primitivism. It is also well known that the Hungarian born and partly European-bred Sher-Gil, who occasionally used her servants as models, was not part of the world of the Indian peasantry that she depicted in her paintings, who were essentially distant and foreign to the artist, at times gazed at from above, or viewed from outside as an undifferentiated mass. Sher-Gil’s portraits of Indians, which represented “the people” in the singular, as archetypes of humanity, would appear to reproduce, then, Gauguin’s primitivist gesture, while also complicating the idea that primitivism as a structure of desire within modernism belonged exclusively to the white, Western male imaginary. Self-Portrait as Tahitian can thus also be seen as an account, in part, of the phenomenon of historical particularity within the universalising discursive arena of modernism. The painting makes visible both the European provenance of primitivism, and the radical interruptions of its formations – its gendered subversions, its circuitous migrations, and its gestures of reproduction and difference – in and out of the colonial sphere.

By the year of Sher-Gil’s self portrait, 1934, primitivism as a set of representational conventions was both well established, and becoming unhinged by negritude, anti-colonial nationalism, and other assertions of agency in Paris and elsewhere. If anything, primitivism in the period between the wars had emerged as a spectacle, both at the level of high culture (for example, in the 1923 opera, The Creation of the World, which featured tribal costumes and sets by Fernand Léger), and at the other end of the cultural spectrum, with the eruption of jazz in the bars and clubs of Montparnasse, and the nightclub performances of Josephine Baker.18 It is a sign of the complexity of Sher-Gil’s relationship to this environment that she lived a bohemian and cosmopolitan life, but was nevertheless described by one reviewer in Paris as “an exquisite and mysterious little Hindu princess”, who “speaks French like a Parisian” and who “conjures up the mysterious shores of the Ganges.”19 In presenting herself as a Tahitian nude, Sher-Gil was perhaps leveraging some of the exoticism surrounding her reception in Paris, but she was also undoubtedly conscious of its racism, and of the limits of her own fiction of entry into Gauguin’s sexual imaginary. Indeed, as a mixed-race subject, the young female painter was more like the deracinated indigénes that Gauguin complained of in the Tahitian capital of Papeete, dominated by missionaries and French colonial officials. Later, in the Marquesas, Gauguin routinely denounced the practice of intermarriage between the races, in spite of acquiring his own Tahitian “bride”, the 13-year-old native girl, Tehamana, who served as a model in many of his pictures. One can imagine how Gauguin’s contempt for racial mixing, and his well-known predilection for teenage girls, may have resonated personally for the racially and sexually emancipated Sher-Gil, who was nevertheless still a teenager herself during much of her time in Paris. 

It is from this uncomfortable space of enunciation that Sher-Gil managed to radically scrutinise, through her own self-image, the stylistic options offered by Gauguin to “devise the indigenous body from oil paint” – a pursuit that occurred in the subcontinent, as art critic Geeta Kapur has pointed out, largely through the figure of the female20 – while rejecting much of the fetishism and male mastery that underwrote the French painter’s escape from the excesses of European civilisation. What is extraordinary is that Sher-Gil, like the best self-portraitists, does not allow this act of self-reflection to devolve into epistemological anxiety. Instead, she remains poised and business-like, retaining just enough distance to present the viewer with a glimpse of herself refracted through the authoritative gaze of the Western, male avant-garde, while maintaining command over the entire situation. 

Japonisme and the Act of Masquerade

A crucial question remains: how should we understand the Japanese motifs and figures – the seated Japanese male, the female geishas in kimonos, the pagoda-like structure, and the austere lines of a Japanese court-yard (is it an exterior or interior?) – that comprise the distinctly un-Tahitian backdrop of Amrita’s provocative response to Gauguin? Perhaps Sher-Gil was commenting here upon the turn towards Japanese techniques and aesthetics, and the Nihon-ga painting tradition in particular, undertaken by the Bengal School in India from the first decade of the 20th century on. Sher-Gil was notoriously outspoken against the work of the Bengal School, which she viewed as “cramping and crippling” of creativity and responsible “for the stagnation that characterizes Indian painting today.”21 However, her contempt for the “insipid futilities of the Bengal School”, Nandalal Bose’s “uninspired cleverness” and Rabindranath Tagore’s “piddling little poetry”22 tended to be expressed vocally and publicly, rather than articulated through the subtleties of her painting, except insofar as she viewed her entire practice as a bid against the orthodoxy they represented in Indian art by the 1930s. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Japanese subtext in Sher-Gil’s portrait references the pan-Asian proclivities of the Bengal School because Sher-Gil’s opposition to their perceived hold over Indian art took shape largely after her return to India, and the completion of the painting, in 1934. It is more plausible that the background represents a continuation of the painterly issues at work in the foreground, namely, Sher-Gil’s immersion in the lessons and legacies of post-Impressionist painting shaped by her art education in Paris. What is being referenced in the background of Self Portrait as Tahitian is, I suggest, the context of Japonisme in Europe, understood as a constellation of projections and longings around Japan that was simultaneously artistic and commercial, and that took hold of artistic circles in London and Paris in the final decades of the 19th century.

Many of the pioneering figures of modern art in Europe, including Manet, Monet, Degas, Whistler, Rodin, van Gogh and Gauguin, were all involved at some point or another in studying, collecting and stylistically appropriating the techniques and subject matter of Japanese art during their influential artistic careers.23 In her self-portrait, Sher-Gil may have been seizing upon a common pictorial practice among 19th-century European painters of placing Japanese prints, objects, fabrics and motifs in the background of their portraits, not merely for decorative effect but to enhance aspects of the sitter’s biography in some way. Two well-known examples include Manet’s Portrait of Zola (1868), which presented the novelist seated at his desk below a Japanese screen and a Japanese woodcut print, along with other meaningful items, and van Gogh’s 1887/88 Portrait of Tanguy, with its kaleidoscopic background of Japanese images and prints.24 I will return shortly to develop in further detail the relevance of van Gogh’s aesthetic relationship to Japan, and its unique importance for Sher-Gil. For now, it is important to also note the element of cross-cultural masquerade that characterised portraiture and self-portraiture in the Japoniste style, beginning perhaps with Monet’s eccentric portrait of his wife in 1876, La Japonaise (The Japanese Lady),25 and culminating in the exchange of self-portraits between van Gogh and Gauguin that inaugurated their legendary collaboration in Arles. As I will suggest, it is the cross-cultural theatrics of Japoniste portraiture and self-portraiture in Europe that becomes part of the self-conscious arsenal for Sher-Gil’s own act of masquerade “as Tahitian.” This offers a further clue about the role of the references to Japan in the background of a painting ostensibly “about” Gauguin.

Sher-Gil and the “Studio of the South”

In the final analysis, Sher-Gil’s self-portrait betrays a preoccupation with Gauguin and van Gogh, and it takes the form of a ménage a trois – largely platonic and intellectually driven – with these male painters, whose work she admired and regarded with the highest esteem.  The painting bears the influence, in particular, of the two self-portraits that Gauguin and van Gogh exchanged in the fall of 1888 in preparation for their artistic collaboration in Arles, which they conceived and referred to as the “Studio of the South”. In these self-portraits, representing what Debora Silverman has called “the bandit and the bonze”, van Gogh and Gauguin stepped into vastly different roles and self-definitions, with a psychic intensity that departs significantly from Monet’s earlier costume play, in order to drive their aesthetic projects into previously uncharted waters.26 The picture Gauguin presented to van Gogh, titled Self-Portrait: Les Miserables (1888), was inspired by Victor Hugo, and it portrayed the artist as a social outcast or bandit, a victim and a tormented soul.“In endowing him (Hugo’s protagonist) with my own features,” Gauguin stated, “I offer a portrait of myself as well as our portrait …”27 Van Gogh was overwhelmed by the gesture, and wrote back that he had been “moved to the depths of my soul.”28 As it turned out, his response applied only to Gauguin’s description of the work, not the actual portrait itself – which van Gogh found desperate, pessimistic and deeply disturbing when the canvas arrived in the mail a short time later.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906. Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1951.65

Van Gogh had nonetheless prepared in return a picture he titled Self-Portrait as Bonze (1888), where the Dutch artist presented a bust of himself as Japanese, adapting the physical features – a round head, slanted eyes and a flattened nose – to appear physiognomically like a bonze, or Japanese monk. He too defined it as both a self-image and a portrait of the modern artist “conceived”, van Gogh explained, “as the portrait of a bonze, a simple worshipper of the Eternal Buddha.”29 Van Gogh, who had no first-hand experience of Japan but was an avid collector of Japanese wood-cut prints, and read the Japonisme literature of the period enthusiastically, could have only encountered such a figure in fiction, most likely in Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887), which he had studied carefully earlier that year. Van Gogh believed the Japanese to be a primordial people liberated from the excesses of modern society, and he projected onto Japan a utopic vision. The intensity of his imaginative operation, however fraught, was expressed in several of his portraits and self-portraits, as well as the 16 paintings of blossoming trees he also completed in Arles that year.30 Self-Portrait as Bonze was the pinnacle expression of van Gogh’s idealised landscape of Japan, but also his vision of hope for the artist, and he dedicated the picture to Gauguin with the inscription “à mon ami, Paul Gauguin.”

Art historians have long been fascinated by these very different self-portraits, subjecting them to extensive scrutiny, and attributing their dissonant registers to divergent temperaments, discordant views of subject and society, and the twin responses, at different ends of the spectrum, of utopian optimism and social pessimism to the experience of modernity itself. The portraits also set the stage for the larger story, one of the most legendary episodes in the history of modern art: van Gogh and Gauguin’s pivotal nine-week collaboration in Arles, which produced a large body of paintings in intense dialogue with one another, but which was fraught with both friendship and rivalry. The personal incompatibility revealed in the self-portraits, according to one version of the story, made the relationship more and more volatile as the weeks progressed, and culminated in the famous violent incident – the ear cutting – which brought a catastrophic end to their time together (Gauguin, who feared his friend’s signs of madness, left Arles immediately, and never saw van Gogh again). Recent interpretation of this notorious event, for our purposes, has tended to stress the two very different aesthetic strategies embodied in their separate approaches to these self-portraits: if Gauguin’s portrait dramatised a problem – the social isolation of the artist – then van Gogh’s proposed a kind of solution involving monastic solitude within a community of painters, a vision that he equated, however mistakenly, with Japan.31 

In the days following his release from the hospital, van Gogh produced another iconic self-portrait, in which he appeared in a coat and fur hat in the winter, with a large bandage covering his mutilated ear. It is one of two in which van Gogh depicted his injury, and both pictures have been traditionally understood as representing the artist’s precarious struggle for self-composure at a time when he was battling madness and thoughts of suicide. In the background of this painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) is an easel with a blank canvas, and on the wall hangs a Japanese woodcut print, an image by Saeto Torakiyo, part of van Gogh’s personal collection.32 The message of this haunting representation now seems increasingly clear: van Gogh’s utopian investment in Japan had suffered a blow; his aesthetic and social ideals had imploded; his orientalist reality, injured beyond repair. In the words of art historian Elizabeth Childs, the juxtaposition of the blank canvas, the bandage cradling his mutilated ear, and the serene world of the Japanese print, all point to a painful confrontation, namely, the “exhaustion of the Japanese paradigm and van Gogh’s decision to leave it behind.”33 The postscript to this picture remains well known: van Gogh, who suffered from increasing psychological imbalance, was admitted to an asylum in Saint Rémy, and ended his life two years later; while Gauguin, who lived for another 13 years, turned his attention to the South Pacific, where he arrived in Papeete, the colonial capital of Tahiti, in 1891 to begin the next episode of his artistic career.

Sher-Gil’s Artistic Self-Fashioning: Strategies, Choices, Preferences

By the time Amrita Sher-Gil arrived in Paris to study painting in 1929, the tale of van Gogh and Gauguin’s shipwrecked “Studio of the South” was firmly established as a creation story within modernism’s master narrative, and the meaning of their self-portrait exchange already subjected to over forty years of myth-making. The question is not if she knew of their collaboration, but what she took away from it, how she positioned herself in relation to it, and in what ways the story of these founding fathers facilitated her own initiation into avant-garde identity a full generation after their deaths. Sher-Gil was clearly compelled by their strategies of self-portraiture, and their acts of masquerade in particular and, as I have suggested, she self-consciously imported their role-playing paradigm for her own act of masquerade as a Polynesian woman. The pictorial tactic she selected – to approach Gauguin and van Gogh through the juxtaposition of Tahiti and Japan – displays Sher-Gil’s unique understanding of how these imaginative geographies fed the European male artist’s creative experiments in paint. Moreover, the prominence of the male shadow behind her (is it Gauguin or van Gogh?), seems to indicate the looming presence of precedent and, above all, the artist’s own search for a place for herself within the creation of modernism’s master discourse. Sher-Gil, like van Gogh and Gauguin before her, was striving to cultivate an image of herself as an artist, while negotiating her relationship to a space beyond Europe through the personal experience of social displacement and difference. Significantly, for all three painters, the self-portrait became the particular site where the aesthetic negotiation and individual quest converged in the most dramatic of ways.

“It was also the artist’s unique way of dealing with belonging and un-belonging; her enactment of identity as a dialogue across difference, her construction of a self ‘in deference and reference to larger totalities’; her liminality and its off-shoot, a dialectical mode of being.”

If, by physically inhabiting the Tahitian subject, Sher-Gil was weighing the stylistic options offered by Gauguin to represent the brown, non-Western body in paint, then the earnest quality of this inhabitation, and the optimism of this cross-cultural reach, was the option presented to her by van Gogh. As Debora Silverman has argued, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait as Bonze (1888) presented “not a victim but a worshipper; it offered a self-portrait as social dialogue, with the self constituted in and through association, in deference and reference to the larger totalities.”34 It portrayed, in other words, a “relational ego”.35 And this paradigm of artistic identity – malleable, contingent, relational, dialogical – had enormous intellectual and emotional appeal for the part-European, part-Indian Sher-Gil seeking to define her connection to the subcontinent.

Vivan Sundaram, Studio, 30s Deco (2001). Courtesy the Estate of Vivan Sundaram and PHOTOINK

Why was Sher-Gil so drawn to van Gogh during and after her return to India, and what was the nature of the ethical model she appeared to be seeking in his paintings and letters? There are aspects of van Gogh’s social vision – his tenacity in the face of fragility and disintegration, his “relational modality” and the syncretic model of self-hood it presented, his precariousness and ultimate defeat – had discernible implications for Sher-Gil’s life and work. The vision of identity presented by van Gogh, as compassionately constituted in and through association, offered a paradigm of artistic subjectivity that resonated strongly with the young Sher-Gil, as she sought a point of entry into the cultural landscape of India from the difficult position of standing partially outside it. Van Gogh’s idealised image of Japan, and the hope that saturated his vision of alterity, presented a framework of empathy in the cross-cultural gesture and a more tentative negotiation with representation itself, than the more triumphant, tropical escapism of Gauguin. Indeed, it was the differences and tensions between these two options, presented through the symbols of Tahiti and Japan, that provided the terms for Sher-Gil’s own self-depiction and her act of masquerade of 1934. If her performance re-worked Gauguin’s authority in relation to the female nude, it also called upon the utopic content of van Gogh’s self-portrait as a bonze, and his painful admission of the fragility of this investment in his haunting later work, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. The vulnerability Sher-Gil detected in van Gogh seemed to speak to her in the most philosophical of ways, as well as – in her words – “how inevitably the character reveals itself in one’s work. Van Gogh’s perhaps even more than usual …”.36 This was especially true after her arrival in India, where she delved into the traditions of the subcontinent – the ancient Buddhist murals of Ajanta, and the medieval Mughal and Pahari miniatures – to which she did and did not fully belong with precisely the kind of tenacity and tenuousness she had seen and admired in Vincent van Gogh. 

In the end, it was not merely the brilliant raiding of historical energies for her own artistic repertoire that constituted Sher-Gil’s specifically modern consciousness. It was also the artist’s unique way of dealing with belonging and un-belonging; her enactment of identity as a dialogue across difference, her construction of a self “in deference and reference to larger totalities”; her liminality and its off-shoot, a dialectical mode of being. These qualities of her life were rather unrepresentative of the era of Indian art in which she is located. Sher-Gil’s early detractors in the subcontinent complained that her Indian portraiture “smells of the west”.37 Clearly, the artist’s crossing of borders and boundaries, and her unsettled relationship to the idea of home, threatened her contemporaries in the national collective seeking to define their autonomy through an “authentic” cultural space.  Equally telling was the confidence of the young woman’s response: “How dismal to be so completely misunderstood,” she lamented, “when at long last I am learning restraint and discrimination and achieving the subtlety my work has till recently so glaringly lacked. These people have to have things yelled at them from housetops! They fail to recognize all except the most obvious.”38 The inability of the world to accept her vision was an ongoing source of aggravation for Sher-Gil, and her letters often sounded the discordant tone of an individual at odds with the society around them – in her words, a “host of uncomprehending idiots”.39 As Karl Khandalavala stated kindly, Sher-Gil was a “remarkably tolerant person” with “no charm, personal or otherwise, when it came to a discussion on art.”40

“Instead, the great strength of her affecting portraiture, its modernism and its historical innovation, is that it bears the pressure of cultural dislocation and ‘existential unsettlement on its surface’, and attempts to articulate the new topos of human experience that Said and others have linked to a critical consciousness most relevant to our time: namely, the aching and seemingly interminable search for the ‘solidity and satisfaction of earth’.”

Indeed, many of the most ground-breaking qualities of Sher-Gil’s life – her restless opposition to orthodoxy, her stubbornness, her lack of serenity, her impatience with the culture of conformism around her – appear to be symptomatic of the dissonant relationship to society that Edward Said has so eloquently connected to migration and exile, as definitive forms of experiences of the modern.41 Sher-Gil was of course not literally in exile; her patterns of migration, however unconventional, did not amount to a forced departure from a place. For Said, however, the notion of exile is also a metaphorical condition “engendered by estrangement, distance and dispersion,”42 and a powerful motif in the art of modernity, one that has historically made possible “originality of vision”.43 “Most people,” Said has explained, “are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions” and the potential to mediate between discrepant experiences.44 In Said’s terms, exile is thus the basis for a critical intellectual practice at odds with the prerogatives of the settled collective and the “thumping language of national pride.”45 Yet the revolutionary daring and audacity of an exilic consciousness is not without its downside:  as Said has stated poignantly, this is the essential and insurmountable sadness, the “crippling sorrow of estrangement,” that comes from the “unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.”46

Amrita Sher-Gil, Hill Women (November 1935). Courtesy the Estate of Amrita Sher-Gil

The deep sense of melancholy that permeates Sher-Gil’s portraiture has long been viewed as emerging from the problem of India’s poverty, or more precisely, as a reflection of the artist’s reaction to what she saw as “those silent images of infinite submission and patience … their angular brown bodies strangely beautiful in their ugliness”.47 Sher-Gil responded with such compassion and intensity that, according to Mulk Raj Anand, one could almost “feel misery from the pores of her paint.”48 For other critics, however, her lyrical renderings of India’s subaltern populations amounted to an easy aestheticisation of the issues: her aristocratic class background, and the social distance created by her European education and upbringing, were both her personal “failing and that of her art.”49 Only recently have we come to recognise how Sher-Gil’s own sense of fragmentation and cultural isolation might also stand at the heart of her pictorial project. As Sher-Gil herself once reflected: “It may be that the sadness, the queer ugliness of the types I choose as my models … corresponds to something in me, some inner trait in my nature which responds to things that are sad, rather than to manifestations of life which are exuberantly happy, or placidly contented.”50 Clearly, the malaise she expressed in her letters about life as “infinitely grey and melancholy, something unbelievably empty,” and her puzzlement and growing anxiety about “that sensation of utterable lassitude and vague chimeric fear” that she woke up to each day, were also at the painful core of what she sought to communicate in paint.51 In other words, Sher-Gil’s art can no longer be heralded as a triumph over her own displacement, or a final act of reconciliation with her homeland, or as affirmation of the power of origins and the stabilising force of an essential Indian identity. Instead, the great strength of her affecting portraiture, its modernism and its historical innovation, is that it bears the pressure of cultural dislocation and “existential unsettlement on its surface,” and attempts to articulate the new topos of human experience that Said and others have linked to a critical consciousness most relevant to our time: namely, the aching and seemingly interminable search for the “solidity and satisfaction of earth.”52

“I also Love van Gogh”

Sher-Gil once proudly described a painting of hers, Professional Model (1933), as her first successful “essay at art.”53 Self-Portrait of Tahitian may also be read as an essay of sorts – a graduating thesis, as it were, submitted by Sher-Gil on the interrelated topics of painting, self-portraiture and, ultimately, her own artistic subjectivity, as fashioned dialectically in and through the processes of identification and cultural difference. Self-Portrait as Tahitian may appear to confirm, on the surface at least, a spirit of exploration of Gauguin. However, as I have sought to demonstrate in this essay, against the longstanding narrative of Sher-Gil’s intractable debt to Gauguin, Self-Portrait as Tahitian also subverts and rejects several of Gauguin’s gestures of objectification in relation to the female nude, and makes visible, albeit in a more oblique fashion, Sher-Gil’s preoccupation with the art of van Gogh and the elusive experimentation with alterity and self-portraiture that characterised the latter’s engagement with Japan. In the end, I have proposed that it was van Gogh’s dialogical and fragile ethical vision, as an alternative to the story of triumph, and not her “intimate adherence” to Gauguin,54 that drove the painting’s radical performativity, namely, its act of masquerade as a Tahitian woman, and that prepared Sher-Gil, both personally and aesthetically, for her ambitious critical mission to “interpret the life of the Indians, particularly the poor Indians, pictorially.”55 

A childhood friend of Sher-Gil’s once recalled that, in 1938, Amrita announced that she was “emancipating herself from Gauguin … Do you mean, I asked her, that the Gauguin in you is dying or that you are dissatisfied? Possibly both,” she said.56 Like almost everything that concerns Amrita Sher-Gil, we are left hanging from this hopelessly ambiguous branch. The lack of conclusion is central to her story; her sudden death at the age of barely 29 meant that her career was, tragically, but also compellingly, an “unfinished project”.57 It is no longer possible to regard Sher-Gil as an anomalous exception, as a “highly Europeanised artist” or “a complication to the social formation” of modern Indian art.58 Instead, she has increasingly emerged as a paradigmatic figure of the 20th century, one who embodied the most painful paradoxes of a colonial modernity, and bore the melancholic imprint of its greatest dilemmas. Feeling alien, standing outside of one’s traditions, receiving a Western education, seeking authenticity and belonging – these aspects of Sher-Gil’s life have resonated for artists, both male and female, throughout the subcontinent, and indeed across the world, in her wake. Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as Tahitian is a remarkable engagement with the multiple aesthetic and ideological foundations of a global modernism, a self-conscious revisiting of the existing tropes held up like a mirror of modernist possibilities, and a powerful act of imagination within the uncertain coordinates of a decolonising world. It is a record of the restless drive of the young female artist involved in the process of being, becoming and belonging. It is an extraordinary vision of the modern self shaped through the migratory historical conditions of our time. It is a “retake” of the most exciting sort. 

Biography

Saloni Mathur has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York. She is a professor in History of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her areas of interest include the visual cultures of modern and contemporary South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, colonial studies and postcolonial criticism, and museum studies in a global frame. She is the author and editor/co-editor of five books, including A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art (Duke University Press, 2019), available as part of an Open Access initiative at https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/22291.

Adapted from Mathur, S. (2011) “A Retake of Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as Tahitian”, in Critical Inquiry vol. 37, no. 3. Republished by permission. All rights reserved.


References

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How to cite this article:
Saloni Mathur (2024), "A Retake of Sher-Gil’s ‘Self-Portrait as Tahitian’" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/a-retake-of-sher-gils-self-portrait-as-tahitian/. Accessed 24 April 2024.