Lot 1
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Gaganendranath Tagore

18,000 - 25,000 GBP
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  • Gaganendranath Tagore
  • Bed of Arrows (Bhishma)
  • Bearing Indian Society of Oriental Art label on reverse 
  • Watercolour and gouache on paper laid on cardboard
  • 39.3 x 50 cms. (15 ½ x 19 ⅝ in.)
  • Executed circa 1922-1925


Purchased by a Czech businessman circa 1925-1930

Thence by descent

Acquired from the above


Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta, circa 1922-1926


This painting has been recently cleaned and consolidated. There is light wear and frame rubbing, particularly around the edges. A few small surface scratches are visible most notably in the lower left quadrant and Bhishma's beard. This painting is in good overall condition and is mounted, but not framed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Until the 1920s, Gaganendranath Tagore was best known for his satirical lithographs caricaturing Bengali middle-class society. In early 1922, he made a dramatic shift towards Cubism that coincided with the famous Bauhaus exhibition organised by Rabindranath Tagore at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta in December 1922. The exhibition included watercolours and prints by artists such as Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Gerdhard Marcks and George Muche. Gaganendranath made his Cubist debut at the exhibition and two years later, held a one-man show that mainly consisted of Cubist works. This painting was exhibited at one of these shows, as evidenced by the Indian Society of Oriental Art label on the reverse.

At the time, the art historian Stella Kramrisch published articles explaining Gaganendranath’s distinctive brand of Cubism. ‘The Indian artist’s ‘musical’ paintings, avoided the danger of becoming a sterile form of abstraction by their blend of the allegorical and the formal. His cubes did not build up a systematic structure, but rather externalized the turbulent forces of inner experience, transforming the static geometry of Analytical Cubism into an expressive device.’ (P. Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, India’s artists and the avant-garde 1922-1947, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 2007, p. 20).  Mitter states that ‘The flexible language of Cubism, with its broken surfaces, released a new energy in Gaganendranath, enabling him to conjure up a painterly fairytale world.’(ibid. p. 27).

This painting depicts a famous scene from the battle of Kurukshetra described at length in the epic Mahabharata.  Bhishma, patriarch of the Kuru clan is mortally wounded by his once beloved protégé and now adversary Arjuna. Ever mindful of his duty towards his kinsmen he refuses to leave the battlefield, instead requesting Arjuna to build him a resting place befitting of a warrior. Arjuna, the famed archer, complies and skillfully constructs a bed of arrows upon which the wounded Bhishma lays down and remains thus until the battle ends and he breathes his last.

The other preoccupation with Gaganendranath at this time was his interest in theatre and in particular set design. His paintings from the 1920s make constant references to the stage. Creating imaginary interiors illuminated by artificial light, conjuring up a magic world of dazzling patterns, crisscrossing lighting and light-refracting forms (ibid. p. 23). Gaganendranath became obsessed with ‘prismatic luminosity’, and was known to have often held up a crystal against the light to study rainbow colours and to have bought a kaleidoscope. His paintings from this period were described as ‘less pictures indeed, than visible music and pulsating light.’ (Forward, Calcutta, 6 January 1924)

Ratan Parimoo suggests that Gaganendranath ‘might also have been acquainted with some of the new ideas of leading Russian scenographists [set designers] who were among the first to adopt Cubist, Futurist and Constructivist ideas to stage décor. A new approach to stage also constituted in the use of lighting where more dark shadows were preferred and beams of light were thrown from various angles focusing on the principal characters. The light beams criss-cross each other, creating an effect of faceted planes, which form an integrated complex together with the opaque planes of sets and their cast shadows.’ (R. Parimoo, Gaganendranath: Painter and Personality, www.artnewsnviews.com, July 2011). His fascination with the properties of light is apparent in this ethereal and luminous painting.