The parallel lives of Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil
The lives of Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil followed paths with a highly unusual number of parallels. In their passions and beliefs they shared much in common, despite never meeting or knowing one another.
Both were women artists at a time when the art world, in common with most other areas of public life, was an almost exclusively male domain. Both led unconventional and independent lives, challenging the social and sexual mores of their time. And both immersed themselves in the national and folk traditions of their respective countries.
Sher-Gil admired and was influenced by works from Indian art history going back as far as the second century BCE.
Kahlo drew inspiration from Mexican votive painting and other folk styles. For both artists, these references were a way into critiquing and challenging colonial norms.
Suffering – both personal and of ‘the people’ as a whole – was also a dominant theme for both artists.
Though of course there were many differences – Kahlo was painting her native Mexico, whereas India was for Hungarian-born Sher-Gil an adopted home – both identified strongly with the oppressed of their society.
Frida learned how to paint the human structure from her photographer father, while Amrita filled her sketchbooks with portraits of their servants.
Frida’s father Guillermo Kahlo Kaufmann was also a photographer, just like Amrita’s father Umrao Singh.
Both artists as young girls embraced self-portraiture as a distinct feature of their work.
Amrita Sher-Gil with her parents and baby sister Indira, in Hungary
“Sher-Gil explored the sadness felt by people, especially women, in 1930s India, giving voice and validity to their experiences. She used her paintbrush to depict the daily lives of Indian women in the 1930s, often revealing a sense of their loneliness and even hopelessness.”
New York Times
Frida’s pain; Amrita’s anguish
Frida Kahlo became a painter after a near fatal accident in 1925. Recuperation took over a year, during which time Kahlo gave up her science education and began painting from her hospital bed. Frida’s many self-portraits often feature wounds.
Amrita’s turmoil is between her two worlds: light and dark, East and West, Europe and India, attraction and resistance: “I am personally trying to be ... an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad.”
Frida Kahlo painting from her hospital bed
Sher-Gil’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women both in India and abroad. Her paintings are today considered by the Indian government to be National Art Treasures.
Women in love
Kahlo had relationships with both men and women and has become an icon for the LGBT movement. Amrita was openly bisexual and had several affairs, including one with French painter Marie-Louise Chassany.
“Kahlo was the main character of her own mythology, as a woman, as a Mexican, and as a suffering person ... She knew how to convert each into a symbol or sign capable of expressing the enormous spiritual resistance of humanity and its splendid sexuality.”
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought: there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me, who feels bizarre and flawed in the same way as I do. I would imagine her and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know, that, yes, it is true, I am here and I am just as strange as you.” Frida Kahlo