“Did I tell you about my Hindu friend? Imagine that her sister has been at the Beaux-Arts for two years and is very talented and very knowledgeable. So when she saw me, she went crazy about my hair and absolutely wanted to do my portrait with my hair loose. As it was for a competition and she had very little time, I posed almost non-stop for three days, and that’s why I couldn’t write to you as I had promised you.”
This was a letter written by art writer and critic, Denyse Proutaux to her boyfriend Philippe Dyvorne in November 1931 about Amrita Sher-Gil. She became friends with the artist and her sister Indira during their stay in Paris between 1929 and 1934. “Denyse met Indira [artist Vivan Sundaram’s mother] at a drawing class they attended together, and then got to know Amrita,” says Sonal Singh, managing director and senior specialist, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, Christie’s India. “Denyse had lovely blond hair that Amrita was fascinated with. During her stay in Paris, she painted Denyse and Indira often. In fact, the former features in four of her paintings, one of which is at the National Gallery of Modern Art and is called Young Girls.”
Yet another significant one from the four paintings, Portrait of Denyse, is headlining Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Auction, which is to be held on 17 March. This important rediscovered portrait (estimated price of $1.8 – 2.8 million) was painted in 1932 and is believed to be the only documented example of the four paintings in private hands.
The painting is not just significant for being an early work by Sher-Gil but is also a testament to the friendship between the Sher-Gil sisters and Denyse, which started when the Amrita was barely 19 and lasted beyond the time they lived in the same country. “Previously unknown, this exceptional portrait has remained in France since the time it was painted. Undocumented works like the present lot are particularly rare and offer new insight on intimate aspects of the artist’s life and work,” mentions a note by the auction house.
The team has been in the know of the painting for under a year now. It has worked closely with the family members of Denyse and historical archives to piece together the story behind the painting. “Denyse, being an art critic and writer, had left several notes about her friendship and about Amrita’s work. Her family kept some sort of an archive of letters of their relationship—whether it is those sent to her partner Philippe Dyvorne or to the Sher-Gil sisters. This helped us date this work to 1932. There was some amount of digging required but we got lucky that a substantial amount of information existed,” says Singh.
In these letters, Denyse described the sittings she did for Sher-Gil, and the painting is most likely the work she refers to as the one in ‘Russian style’ to Philippe in a letter dated 22 February 1932. According to a note by the auction house, the painting is set against what appears to be a window with colourful sprays of flowers on either side. “The present composition is a beautiful portrayal of a Parisian lady of style and attitude. The portrait Sher-Gil painted of her friend, presents Denyse as a self-assured, young Parisian who she respected and admired. Denyse’s gaze is confident, confronting the viewer, while the flowers around her add lightness and charm to her seemingly unflappable expression. The warm, red tones resonate across the foliage, curtain, tightly set hair and rouged skin, imbuing the sitter with a sense of controlled dynamism and silent resolve,” it states.
This work was done by Sher-Gil when she was still in art school, with its fairly academic rigour. However, according to Singh, this work is significant as Sher-Gil tries to experiment with backgrounds and expressions. She goes beyond the physicality of Denyse to bring out the conflicting emotions and identities with ease. “This is an important part of her journey of discovering herself as an artist. We have not seen too many works in this style,” adds Singh.
Besides Portrait of Denyse, this particular sale is marked with early works by significant artists like Tyeb Mehta and F.N. Souza. “We curate our sales to the extent of deciding to have early works or those from later periods in the career. But it also depends on the works available. In this sale we got lucky as we have a number of important early works. The 1962-work by Tyeb Mehta is relatively early for him. And the 1948 work, Family, by F.N. Souza is from the time when the Progressive Artists Group was formed and is quite a departure from his later works,” says Singh.
This painting is from the time when Souza was getting vexed with the political inertia of Bombay society and became a member of the Communist Party of India in 1947. The catalogue mentions Geeta Kapur’s essay on the artist, titled ‘Devil in the Flesh’ from 1978: “He devised his figures according to class-types, showed them in their environment, labeled them with appropriate titles. He depicted the plight of the poor (Goan peasants, Bombay Proletariat); he exposed the villains (Capitalists in particular, the bourgeoisie in general). He painted, moreover, in an idiom belonging broadly to the Social Realist category and was more than willing, with the help of the party organisation, to show his paintings in the working class colonies of Bombay,” wrote Kapur.
It was during this period that 22-year-old Souza painted Family, a scathing socioeconomic portrait of the impoverished working class. “...also notable in this picture is the artist’s overt references to Catholicism, both in the oversize cross the woman wears on a rosary around her neck and in the household shrine with the Madonna and Child that hangs on the wall behind her,” mentions the catalogue essay. “While Souza clearly highlights their poverty, largely perpetuated by indebtedness and servitude to wealthier, more powerful masters, he also draws attention to their faith, a result of centuries of conversion by missionaries and colonizers.”
It is such stories about the evolution of the various artists’ styles that one can see in the auction. Through essays and anecdotes, the catalogue evokes webs of relationships and emotions, which have informed journeys of artists like Krishen Khanna. For instance, an essay by Martha Banwell from Pennsylvania sheds light on the friendship between her parents, Arthur and Lily Banwell and Khanna. When her parents moved from the US to Madras in the 1960s for work, they joined the Madras Club, where they met Krishen and Renu Khanna. At that time Krishen Khanna was working for Grindlay’s. That meeting set the foundation for a friendship that has lasted for over seventy years. “The highlight of any year, though, was time spent in Simla at Ravensdale, the wonderful colonial-era house owned by Krishen’s parents and still in the family. High in the mountains, surrounded by a big garden with the best swing ever, this was paradise,” writes Banwell in the essay. A number of Krishen Khanna paintings in the sale hail from the Banwell collection.
Also interesting in the sale is a presentation of works by three very strong contemporary artists—Ranjani Shettar, Zarina and Nasreen Mohamedi. The second part of the sale is dedicated to the oeuvre of Benodebehari Mukherjee, with a sizable number of works drawn from his daughter’s estate, the Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation. “It covers a wide period, starting from the 1930s when he was at Santiniketan,” says Singh. “For a serious collector, the sale is an opportunity to fill gaps with critical works, and to make your collection fuller. This particular auction reflects a number of important moments in the history of Indian art.”