A portrait of two artists

January 22, 2023

How an exhibition celebrating Frida Kahlo’s life and works can remind one of Amrita Shergil

A portrait of two artists


n exhibition on art and life of Frida Kahlo, held at Drents Museum, Assen in the Netherlands, took me back to Lahore, my home town. I had seen Frida’s work in New York and Diego Rivera’s murals in Detroit where Frida accompanied him but the exhibition at Drents introduced me to Frida’s multiple personae and a human trying to keep her head high amidst her collapsing physical edifice. It showed Frida’s zest for life, creativity, attention to design details for dresses, corsets, and shoes, a carefully built persona, symbols of self-love and losses, frustrations and global connections in the early half of Twentieth Century, love for men and women, breaking everyday norms and touching boundaries, which even today are unthinkable among many.

Curated by Drents director, Harry Tupan, the exhibition had Frida’s paintings, dresses, books like a Walt Whitman anthology that was on Frida’s side table when she died, letters, cosmetics, shoes, medicine bottles and rare photographs.On how was Viva la Frida different from other exhibitions, Tupan said: “The exhibition, Viva la Frida - Life and Art of Frida Kahlo, was an overall concept.We were able to showcase not only her famous artworks but also her personal belongings. The paintings, drawings and photographs along with her clothes, jewelry and medical supplies gave a layered picture of the iconic woman Kahlo was in terms of art, inclusiveness, gender and politics.”

As I moved in Drents through a joyous and colourful exhibition celebrating Frida’s life and works, she became real. She reminded me of Amrita Shergil – the pre-independence bohemian artist who spent her last months in Lahore, the city that opened its doors to Amrita. Amrita is at times compared with Kahlo. The more I looked at the works of the two great women artists of early Twentieth Century, the more they appeared like two identical twins existing in two different corners of the world.

Growing up in a historic city like Lahore has its advantages; one is able to follow steps and stories of people who once lived and breathed there. In the Raj era and for a long time after independence, The Mall was a hub of art, academic and literary activities. Amrita Shergil lived just off The Mall, at 23 Ganga Ram Mansion one of the dozen red brick proto-type designed colonial bungalows. Despite the passage of significant time, the place breaths of colonial era. When I last visited the place in June 2022, it felt that Amrita was still upstairs in her studio finishing her last painting. Her studio was in a room, commonly known as a rain-time storage – barsaati, on top floor of Banglow No 23.Kahlo spent much of her life in Casa Azul (the Blue House) in Mexico City, built by her father Guillermo Kahlo, a German, who had moved to Mexico from Hungary after the death of his first wife in childbirth and married a Mexican indigenous woman, Matilde Calderon.

Amrita was born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian mother and an aristocratic Sikh father and died young at the age of 28 years. Frida Kahlo was born a few years earlier in 1907 in Mexico City. Though Frida outlived Amrita by two decades, she too was young when she died a few days after turning 47. She left behind 200 paintings and sketches including 55 self-portraits, kept a diary with details and sketches giving a window to her life. Amrita’s known works number 143.Her early focus was on nudes. She also did self-portraits. Her work mostly remained figurative. She regularly wrote letters and articles explaining her work, which means that as an artist she knew the importance of explaining her work. Frida did this through her diaries and consciously built an image.

Frida was stricken by polio at the age of six and met a devastating accident at 18when a bus she was travelling in was hit by a metro-tram. Despite her disabilities, her immense love of drawing could be seen in one of the photos at the Drents exhibition where she is lying on a bed with easel and a specially placed mirror on the roof allows her to see and draw. She married a much older and accomplished Mexican artist of the time, Diego Rivera. Their relationship remained fluid but friendly. Frida Kahlo’s persona is a key part of Mexican cultural and soft power. The Mexican Ambassador in Netherlands Jose Antonio Zabalgoita said: “Frida Kahlo is the best-known Mexican artist. Her works, her ideas and her rebellious personality certainly anticipated current principles and values for women’s rights. As ambassador of Mexico, I rely on Kahlo’s powerful figure to underscore Mexico’s cultural identity.”

Amrita’s father Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia was a scholarly man with interest in philosophy, religion and photography. Frida’s father also indulged in photography. Amrita’s mother, Marie Antionette, was a musician and an opera singer. She came to India with Princess Bamba Singh, the grand-daughter of Mahraja Ranjit Singh, and lived in Model Town. The Sardar married Marie-Antionete after the death of his first wife.

Sardar Majithia decided to move back to the subcontinentin 1921.Here, Amrita found her love for painting. She was tutored by Hal Bevan-Petman (1894-1980) a British portrait expert who stayed on in Pakistan after independence and became an important elite portrait maker in the early years of Pakistan. Shergil left India for Paris from 1929 to 1934 to study at Ecole des Beaux. At the Paris Grand Salon her painting, Young Girls, got an award. Amrita had the honour of becoming an associate of the Salon at the age of 18. She was also exposed to the works of impressionists and became an admirer of Paul Gaugin. His influence can be seen in several of her works especially her 1934 self-portrait.She is also, at times,described as post-impressionist and considered one of the first modern painters of sub-continent.

Frida used Aztec mythology and later used Hindu mythology in her work which showed that she was in some way exposed to the subcontinent. Frida’s work is full of symbolism from her roots, her life and travels. Amrita, as she stayed in subcontinent, was able to identify with her father’s land. Her work shows melancholic and lonely subcontinental female characters.

Kahlo was called a surrealist. She said that she painted her own reality and did not paint dreams. Her work does seem surreal with strange stories of a woman lying in blood, animals hovering around and dream-like images. The Two Fridas and The Wounded Table were displayed at an early exhibition in Mexico on surrealism. Frida was a life-long communist and a revolutionary but led a life of privilege with Diego Garcia. Amrita’s artistic concerns or empathy for natives can also be seen from herlens of her privileged life. Amrita was an elitist prodigy but did struggle towards the end of her life having married her Hungarian cousin, Dr Victor Egan, who could not run a successful medical practice and ended up in a small town of Suraya where Amrita’s family owned a sugar mill. That was a period of creative dryness and marital troubles for Amrita. Both decided to move to Lahore in September 1941.

Amrita held her first solo exhibition in Lahore in November 1937. The exhibition showed 33 works and was organised by Dr Charles Fabri, an Hungarian Indologist and leading art-critic of the time, working for the Civil and Military Gazette. It was also during this visit that Amrita saw Lahore Museum and visited Harappa. Lahore was the cultural hub of the sub-continent. This exposure to life in Lahore probably led to the decision by Dr and Mrs Egan (Amrita) to move there in September 1941, thinking that it would result in a better career move for both.

Frida held her first major show in 1938 in Julien Levy Gallery, New York. Her unfulfilled desire to be a mother is reflected in several works including the Henry Ford Hospital (1932). Kahlo died of pulmonary embolism; some contemporaries suspected suicide. Shergil seemed to have avoided motherhood; an abortion might have caused her early death; two months after arriving in Lahore and looking for a breakthrough.

Frida became known to the world in early 1980’s with increased interest in feminism and decolonization and more so in this century. Amrita remained known to the subcontinent art circles but got much more attention towards the end of last century and in this century. With their mixed heritage and international exposure of the time both Amrita Shergil and Frida Kahlo invoked their ‘otherness.’

Kahlo wore the Mexican tehuana and Shergil adopted the sari as the South Asian dress. Tehuana’s colorfulness is part of Kahlo’s paintings and global image. Shergil can be seen wearing a sariin her photos and her paintings showsari-cladvoiceless women. Both Frida and Amritahave been re-explored posthumously and reinterpreted by the art world.

The writer is a diplomat and writes about contemporary art and culture. He is author of All That Art – a book on Pakistani contemporary art and architecture. He can be followed on Twitter @suljuk

A portrait of two artists