Painting the Soul: Rabindranath Tagore’s Artistic Mystique

“…So often I think that only painting has a deathless quality”.

Rabindranath Tagore

In 2021, a Rabindranath Tagore painting commanded a substantial price at a Christie’s auction, reportedly selling for £500,000. Initially unnamed, the artwork was titled “Couple” by Christie’s and garnered interest from prospective buyers. While Rabindranath Tagore is typically celebrated for his literary works and other endeavors, his lesser-known creations, such as his paintings, often remain undiscovered treasures in mainstream discussions.

Rabindranath Tagore’s brilliance transcended multiple domains. While he gained renown as the first non-European Nobel laureate in Literature in 1913, his legacy extends far beyond his poetry. Among his lasting contributions is the establishment of an open-air university in Santiniketan. Tagore (25th of Boishakh, 1268 – 22nd of Srabon, 1348) was a leading figure in Bengal, renowned as a poet, writer, philosopher, composer, and artist. Raised in Kolkata’s cultural milieu, he produced an extensive array of literary works over six decades, including poetry, prose, novels, plays, essays, and songs. His famous compositions like “Gitanjali,” “Gora,” “Ghore Baire,” “Kabuliwala,” and “The Post Office” dive into diverse themes such as love, nature, spirituality, and social reform. Tagore’s writings, characterized by their lyrical beauty and emotional depth, reflect his efforts to bridge the human and divine domains. He addressed contemporary societal issues like gender inequality and caste discrimination, drawing inspiration from Bengal’s rich cultural heritage. Tagore’s influence extended beyond literature, impacting fields like education, art, music, and social reform. His works, translated into numerous languages, continue to inspire readers globally, earning him the title of the “Bard of Bengal.” Tagore’s travels abroad introduced his ideas to diverse audiences, while his own compositions reflected influences from global cultures, as seen in songs like “Phule Phule Dhole Dhole” and “Purano Shei Diner Kotha,” the latter being inspired by Scottish music. Despite being influenced by the world, Tagore’s writings continue to influence global thought, evident in the numerous festivals honoring him worldwide. The simplicity and depth of Tagore’s poetry, such as “Birpurush”, inspire a desire to explore his entire oeuvre, showcasing his versatility as a musician, composer, novelist, and more. His impact on Bengali culture, particularly through his songs, is akin to Shakespeare’s influence on English literature. Music remained central to Tagore’s life, reflecting his multifaceted genius.

Surprisingly, his paintings, while notable, often receive less acclaim and discussion compared to his literary works. Despite his significant contributions to the art world, Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings are sometimes overshadowed by his prolific writing career. While recognized for their unique qualities, his artistic endeavors may not receive as much attention or praise in mainstream discourse. Within certain circles, particularly those focused on art and culture, Tagore’s paintings are appreciated and analyzed for their depth, symbolism, and contribution to the broader landscape of Indian art. Here, we’ll explore his eminence as a painter.

On Wednesday, November 19, 1930, an exhibition showcasing Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings debuted at the Fifty-six Street Gallery in Manhattan, New York. The poet, seated in a tall chair at the rear of the gallery, recounted his journey into painting to the assembled audience. He confessed his initial unfamiliarity with the art form, expressing hesitancy and a sense of novelty. He urged viewers to disregard his identity as a poet, emphasizing that his paintings should stand alone without prejudice based on his literary background. Describing his artistic process, he revealed that his creations were spontaneous and lacked deliberate planning or imitation. He recounted how sketches initially made while editing his manuscripts captivated him, prompting him to refine them into finished artworks.

He discarded most of his early sketches but retained some following advice from artists. European critics responded positively to them. The poet explained that the lines in his paintings were akin to his prose. Their recognition, if any, should stem primarily from their rhythmic composition rather than any conceptual interpretation or depiction of reality. Around seventy-five color ink paintings are exhibited in galleries, open to the public back then in New York. Some portray the material world in vivid or somber hues, while others dive into entirely imaginative forms. The New York Times reported on November 20 about the poet’s painting exhibition. Ten days later, another article detailed the same event, mentioning a wooden bust of the poet by Gleb W. Derujinsky. Prior to this, the poet spoke at Yale University and expressed his desire to finance his schooling expenses by selling his artwork. The New York Times covered this on October 27, 1930. But after all this, the painting exhibition failed to generate much interest, deeply disappointing the poet. Rabindranath Tagore ventured into painting late in life, around 1928, at the age of 67. He hailed from a family of notable painters, including his nephews Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, as well as his brother Jyotirindranath. Initially hesitant to showcase his artworks, he eventually immersed himself in painting during the last 15 years of his life, creating approximately 2,500 paintings.

His paintings were presented significantly in the Western context. To understand the context of Rabindranath’s artwork, we must rewind to 1924 when he was invited to commemorate Peru’s independence centenary. Despite his ill health, he ventured into a journey from Madras to Colombo, where he boarded the ship ‘Haruna-Maru’ bound for Europe on September 24. Amidst his travels, Rabindranath crafted poetry books, experimenting with ink to create various images. However, his health deteriorated en route, leading to an unexpected stopover in Argentina, where he met Victoria Ocampo, a fervent admirer of his work. Ocampo, deeply enamored with Rabindranath, hosted him for over a month, fostering a profound bond between them.

Ocampo played a pivotal role in Rabindranath Tagore’s life by inspiring his late-life pursuit of painting. Tagore himself referred to his newfound passion for painting as the beloved of the last age. While staying at Ocampo’s house, he primarily focused on writing poetry. Ocampo recalls observing him with a small notebook on the table, where he would jot down Bengali poems. Intrigued by the notebook, Ocampo occasionally perused its contents, finding herself captivated by Tagore’s process of composing and doodling. From these scribbles emerged a plethora of diverse imagery, including faces, ancient creatures, reptiles, and whimsical forms, reflecting Tagore’s creative exploration.

When Rabindranath Tagore’s first painting was displayed in Paris in 1930, it received no recognition in his native land. In a letter, Tagore reflects on his artwork, expressing how it lacks the immediate connection to Bengal that his poetry possesses. He mentions donating his paintings to the West due to this disconnect. Tagore harbored a desire to exhibit his paintings in France, and during his visit to the French Riviera in March 1930 as a guest of French banker Albert Kahn, he brought along four hundred of his artworks. However, he found it challenging to secure exhibition spaces in Paris, as good galleries were scarce, and Tagore’s fame was limited in the city known as the world capital of art.

Luckily, Ocampo happened to be in Paris during early April, possibly visiting the new man in her life, Pia Drew Ra Hossel. Tagore, aware of Ocampo’s extensive connections, telegraphed her in hopes of assistance. Responding promptly, Ocampo facilitated Tagore’s exhibition at the Pigalle Gallery, collaborating with writer Contes de Noel to craft an introduction for the paintings. Her efficient handling of the tasks surprised everyone with its speed and efficacy. Rathindranath recounts his father’s experience, noting that when Tagore returned to Paris in 1930 with his paintings, some French artists expressed interest in exhibiting them. However, securing a venue in Paris proved daunting due to the long waiting list for desirable halls. Tagore reached out to Ocampo for help, and she swiftly organized all aspects of the exhibition, demonstrating her invaluable support.

Art connoisseurs like André Karpeles, Paul Valéry, and André Gide hailed the paintings as emblematic of “the art of the coming age.” Architect R.S. Millward, after visiting the Pigalle Gallery exhibition in Paris, struggled to articulate his impressions, likening the experience to encountering nameless dreams. He described encountering unsettling black shapes juxtaposed with entrancing triangular forms that seemed to dance before his eyes. The exhibition left him mesmerized by the enigmatic faces and emotive expressions portrayed in the paintings, evoking a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere.

Following the Paris exhibition, arrangements were made for Tagore’s paintings to be showcased in London and Berlin. The poet, brimming with excitement akin to a child, shared his plans with another admirer, Rani Mahalanobis, expressing his eagerness to travel to Germany and then to Geneva. Even before Mahalanobis received his letter, she had likely heard about the extensive display of Tagore’s paintings in Germany, with five pieces acquired by the Berlin National Gallery. Exhibitions were also organized in Dresden, Berlin, and Munich, where the Art Association of Dresden remarked that his’s paintings, much like his poetry and songs, resonated with the essence of his soul, displaying a natural rhythm and newfound joy in the poet’s mature expression through colors—a remarkable transformation. On 23 July 1930, Tagore surprised the people of Munich with his exhibition at the Caspari Gallery, drawing prominent figures from Munich society to attend the unveiling ceremony. In a brief yet eloquent speech, Rabindranath emphasized the inherent limitations of translating poetry into another language, as it often fails to capture the nuances and poetic essence. Conversely, paintings, he noted, transcend language barriers, offering direct knowledge and understanding. He concluded by affirming that while his poetry was intended for his countrymen, his paintings were a gift to the West.

Subsequently, exhibitions were held in Russia, England, and America. During one such event, a Russian art critic engaged him in conversation, expressing astonishment at his artistic talent despite no prior painting experience. The poet humbly responded, indicating that he had not painted before. The critic compared Tagore’s work to that of Russian painter Vrubel, to which Tagore admitted unfamiliarity with Vrubel’s art. When asked about the inspiration behind a particular painting, Tagore explained that it was spontaneously created during his journey back from Japan using blue fountain pen ink. Despite speculation about the medium and subjects of his paintings, Tagore maintained his unconventional approach, disavowing the use of oil paints and deferring questions about specific locales depicted in his artwork. In September, Tagore’s paintings were showcased at the State Museum of New Western Art building in Moscow, drawing significant interest from visitors. By 1930, Tagore’s paintings had been exhibited in nine cities across Europe and America, reflecting his burgeoning enthusiasm for painting over poetry. This sentiment was echoed in a poem dedicated to poet Sudhindranath Dutta on April 7, 1934, where Tagore expressed his newfound passion for painting in verses that evoke imagery of natural landscapes and human endeavors.

Tagore’s artistry hunts through the depths of human emotion, with the human face serving as a prominent motif. Akin to his literary prowess, Tagore’s paintings elaborately interlaced human visages with emotions and essence. His portrayal of faces spans a spectrum of moods, from melancholic and mysterious to menacing, melodramatic, and romantic. The pervasive sadness in Tagore’s work reflects his personal experiences of loss and grief, starting from the untimely demise of his mother in his childhood to the series of tragedies that befell him in later life, including the suicides of close companions and the loss of family members. His emotional turmoil and longing for companionship find expression in literary works like Mahua and Purabi, with the latter containing poems dedicated to Victoria Ocampo, a significant figure in organizing Tagore’s Paris exhibition. The fleeting nature of their relationship left a profound impact on Tagore, further adding to his emotional depth. Tagore’s female figures, in particular, are renowned for their haunting yet gentle expressions. Mulk Raj Anand aptly describes them as vessels of lingering pain and pathos, with their melancholic faces transmitting a sense of dreamlike reality. In his significant works like portrait of a woman, Tagore employs vibrant colors and metaphoric imagery to captivate viewers. Unlike his direct engagement with the audience in most paintings, this piece exudes a sense of enigma, inviting viewers into a wordless theater of emotion and immersion. The appreciation for Tagore’s paintings has grown over time, with the Indian government declaring his work a national treasure in 1976. The association of his art with luminaries like the Elmhirsts further underscores its cultural and historical significance, contributing to its enduring value in the art world.

Tagore’s landscape paintings diverge from traditional depictions, opting instead for a hazy, dreamlike quality. They play with light and shadow, as seen in pieces like “The Golden Canopy of the Evening Sky” and “The Frowning Forest,” reflecting his keen sensitivity to nature’s shifting moods. These landscapes typically feature dark trees set against expansive land and water, evoking both tranquility and a hint of ominous mystery, perhaps a yearning for divine intervention. In his pastiche paintings, Tagore employs prominent geometric patterns resembling birds and animals, albeit in an unconventional manner. These works possess a surreal quality akin to modern artists like Picasso. Tagore dubbed them “Probable Animals,” suggesting they exist only in the domain of dreams. By diving into his subconscious, he crafted a body of work that is both unsettling and intellectually stimulating, challenging our perceptions of reality and the natural world.

Tagore’s artistic breadth mirrors his diverse interests as a polymath. Across various mediums, he explores themes of dream versus reality, hope versus despair, and form versus formlessness. In doing so, he enriches our understanding of the human experience through nuanced representation. While various artistic movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Pointillism, Symbolism, and Romanticism may have left their imprint on Tagore’s paintings, akin to his music, poetry, and prose, his artistic creations carve out a unique niche, evoking a genre entirely of their own.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Senior Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Dhaka Tribune [Link]