At the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Frist Museum of Art in Nashville, a pair of dark eyes followed me. The exhibition displayed an expressive vista of twentieth-century Mexican art by Frida Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera, and many others. More haunting than the breathtaking murals in public buildings were the black-and-white photographs of Kahlo’s crutches, corset, and bed. These relics testified the magical paintings created by Frida despite her painful crippling disability. Frida was petite, yet her self portraits accentuate a distinctive un-plucked-v-shaped uni-brow, un-depilated upper-lip, brown eyes, braids, and colorful Mexican clothing.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), born in Coyoacán, Mexico City, from a German-Hungarian father, and a Spanish-Tehuana mother; reminds me of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Amrita was an avant-garde artist, the second daughter of an Indian father who was a Sanskrit scholar and a Hungarian-Jewish mother. She was known as India’s Frida Kahlo for her unconventional style.
Beloved Frida, Immortal Amrita
During their impressionable childhoods, both artists showed commonalities. Frida learned the human structure from her photographer father, while Amrita filled her sketchbooks with portraits of their servants. Kahlo had polio at six and a bus and a tram accident at eighteen. Multiple injuries and 37 surgeries left her bedridden. She painted in her bed, painting her own face for hours, depicting graphic anatomical details of her suffering body.
Prodigious Frida did not attend art school but sought out Mexico’s leading painters, including Rivera, to teach her. Their friendship became a courtship and then a turbulent marriage.
Amrita got evicted from convent school by declaring herself an atheist. She went to Florence with her mother to study the Italian renaissance. Later she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière under Pierre Vaillent and Lucien Simon. She drew inspiration from Paul Cézanneand Paul Gauguin. She made her first self portrait for another artist friend, Tazlitsky, as a gift: bold red lips, flowing hair and prominent eyes.
Amrita was homesick for India and she returned to Lahore, there she was shocked to see how the British rule had impoverished the Indian stock. They were emaciated versions of themselves, “shadow women with sunken eyes and skeletonized men.” Distraught, she began painting in earthy hues, reds, ochers and whites, dramatic canvases reminiscent of Gauguin.
In 2006 her painting, Village Scene, sold for ₹6.9 crores, the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India. Amrita used the despondency of her paintings to ignite a social epoch.
Longing for Home
Both these artists lived abroad. In America, Frida yearned to go back to her native roots in Mexico. When she returned back to Casa Azul, she played in the courtyard with exotic pets, the spider monkey (her surrogate baby, a gift from Diego), a black cat, African parrots, a hummingbird.They are all immortalized in her paintings.
Amrita was restless in Hungary and said, “Paris belonged to Van Gogh and Pissaro, India belongs only to me.” She returned to India and painted tirelessly. She was getting ready for an exhibition when the trajectory of her life was ended by a sudden death at a young age of 28 years. Frida lived longer despite her disability and kept herself busy making rudimentary paintings. When Frida bid her final adieu, she was in excruciating pain and prayed for deliverance.
Both artists received accolades for their work. Amrita’s “Young Girls” won a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. Frida was acclaimed for her “Birth of Moses” a complex surreal masterpiece invoking Spanish grand masters.
Amrita’s art was encouraged by her mother but she dressed in a sari. Frida’s art was groomed by her father but she donned her mother’s attire symbolic of common life.
Both artists became National treasures. Amrita became the most important modern artist of the 20thcentury from India and Frida established herself style distinct from her husband’s. Kahlo’s paintings attracted international acclaim following her death. Her work continued to resonate with Frida, a 1983 book by Hayden Herrera, and the 2002 biopic with Salma Hayek. Amrita’s paintings are in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
My Aunt Tripta
Tripta Sareen was my aunt who reminded me of Amrita Sher-Gil. It was her, who sparked my research of both these artists. She had her hair in braids, twinkling eyes and generous smile. She wore a red bindi and colorful Punjabi juttis. A soulful poetess, she tried to adjust to the banality of domesticity. Tripta lives on in her poems. She enjoyed teaching the literary arts in Chandigarh till her final breath.
Their paintings and portraits luminesce in my heart, as I tiptoe in the wake of their glory.
Monita Soni is a pathologist and helps diagnose cancer. Her writing style weaves Eastern and Western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”