Born in Calcutta into a wealthy Brahmo family, Rabindranath Tagore went on to become one of the most revered poet-philosophers of his time. In 1913, after a trip to England, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first non-Westerner to be honoured with the award. A poet, author, playwright and artist, Tagore's creative output was immense. His career as a painter dates from around 1928 though he is known to have drawn sketches throughout his career. What began as doodling on his working manuscripts became an obsession after 1930 and it is thought that in the last ten years of his life he produced over two thousand pictures. His work was publicly displayed for the first time in Paris in 1930, followed by an exhibition in Calcutta in 1931.
The human face is a noticeable constant in Rabindranath’s art. As a writer par excellence, he connected human appearance with emotions and essence. This transcended to his art as well. While in the earlier works, the face took the form of a mask or hieratic representation of a social type, later his faces aroused infinite human emotions and experience. They reveal a myriad of moods: melancholic, mysterious, menacing, melodramatic, and romantic.
In an article published in a supplement of the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika (May 8, 2010), 'noted psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has written that a sense of melancholy pervaded Tagore’s creative genius. Kakar feels that to look for the source of this melancholy, one must look at the complexities of his childhood and the impact of losing his mother when he was still a boy.' (R. Lochan, ‘Looking Afresh at Rabindranath’s Art,’ Something Old Something New: Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Volume, Marg Publications, 2011, p. 155) Former director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Prof. Rajeev Lochan elaborates, 'It was just not his mother’s death in his boyhood but so many other deaths and partings. All through his life he suffered a great deal of personal tragedy.' (ibid., p. 156) Very early in his life Rabindranath’s favourite sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi committed suicide. She had been known to Rabindranath since he was seven years old; she was his childhood playmate and later went on to become his literary companion as well as critic. 'That grief was stretched in his memory all his life.' (ibid.)
In the space of five years between 1902 and 1907, his wife, daughter and youngest son died. 'The evening his wife passed away, the poet went to the roof of his house ad spent the night alone walking to and fro allowing nobody near him. This kind of reaction when faced with major emotional trauma, seeking solitude, spending restless, sleepless nights on end, was to become a pattern of his life.' (M.G. Mukhopadhyay, ‘Death and Dying and Rabindranath,’ Something Old Something New: Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Volume, Marg Publications, 2011, p. 113)
Tagore’s emotional state, solitude and longing for companionship are articulated in his literary works such as Mahua and Purabi. The latter includes poems dedicated to another companion, the attractive Argentinian writer and intellectual, Victoria Ocampo whom Tagore met in Buenos Aires in 1924 and then again in France in the 1930s. Ocampo was also instrumental in organising the first exhibition of Tagore’s art in Paris in 1930. Their idyllic encounter was however short lived and it is said that this separation too was hard on him.
Of his ‘heads’, Tagore’s female figures are especially well-known. In a Marg essay of 1961, Mulk Raj Anand elaborated 'The women seem to precipitate all the marvellous desires… They are stolen heroines from the past. Their gentle eyes and melancholy faces are half opaque… The pain has ceased but the pathos lingers. The pain lingered so much that this oval faced woman came back again and again with her head cloth flowing in mellow colours transmitting dream into reality on an absolute pain.' (M. Anand, ‘Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore,’ Something Old Something New: Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Volume, Marg Publications, 2011, p. 41)
Lot 3 is an exceptional case in point. It perfectly demonstrates Rabindranath's talent of metaphorical painting. The woman, rendered in a multi-chromatic scheme, has been offset on the left of the picture plane. The negative space is assorted tempered hues of green, ochre and a dull pink. There is a flicker of light on her face- as if emerging from a darkness at the crack of dawn, a dawn which breaks over the horizon in shell pink and faint gold: the hour of silence when nothing moves except light. 'Rabindranath … applied layer on layer of translucent watercolour to create rhythmic language like poetry. The built up layers of transparent watercolours sometimes introduce darkness, at other times impart a glow.' (R. Lochan, ‘Looking Afresh at Rabindranath’s Art,’ Marg Magazine, 2011, p. 162) Here we see both. Tagore uses intense colours to captivate his audience with portraits that exude a sense of enigma.
'What engages one about these works, especially the dramatic heads and figures is the quality of silence that pervades them.' (ibid. p. 152) Unlike most of Tagore’s individual faces which engage directly with the viewer, this one seems to be looking at something beyond. There is a wordless theatre at play here which teases us into an empathetic immersion.
If there is one word that characterises Rabindranath’s art, it is rhythm. He once said “The only training that I had from my younger days was the training in rhythm, in thought, and the rhythm in sound.” (R. Tagore, The Religion of an Artist, Viswav Bharti, 1963, unpaginated) Tagore never made preparatory sketches. Lack of formal training in the visual arts allowed him to approach his work with an unobstructed freedom and vitality. He did not seem to adopt any particular style or adhere to any school of art. Mulk Raj Anand expounded on Tagore’s expressionism, 'The sheer force of certain voluntary associations asserts itself. And the inspired painter begins to transform the forces of the inner life into certain phantoms that have been haunting him.' (M. Anand, ‘Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, Something Old Something New: Rabindranath Tagore 150th Birth Anniversary Volume, Marg Publications, 2011, p. 39)
In the same essay, Anand spoke of the reaction to Tagore’s art in the 1930s: 'The strange phenomenon of the poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore suddenly becoming a painter at the age of sixty seven, surprised many people. Confused many more, and delighted a few. That a great writer, who was the national poet of his country, almost a classic in his own lifetime, should produce some meaningless drawings and paintings, with the bloom of innocence on them, was certainly shocking to a generation who had no time to think or feel, except about national freedom. And, when these very same pictures, were pronounced to be highly significant in Europe, the whole situation seemed bewildering.' (ibid. p. 26)
This appreciation grew in leaps and bounds with time. Since 1961, the date of Anand’s Marg article, there has been a tremendous shift in the market of Tagore’s works. In 1976, the Government of India declared his work a national treasure with regard to his 'artistic and aesthetic value' and prohibited the exportation of his works outside the country. Besides the individual aesthetic quality of the work, another aspect which has played a significant role in the 'value' is the provenance of the works themselves. Given his stature as a noble laureate and national hero, Tagore was associated with many world luminaries who bought or were gifted his work. One such family was the Elmhirst family - Leonard and Dorothy of Dartington Hall, Devon in England.
Leonard Elmhirst was a close friend of Rabindranath having first met the poet whilst studying agricultural economics at Cornell University, New York from 1919-1921. Post-graduation, on the invitation of Rabindranath, Leonard visited India to help run a farm project in Surul near Santiniketan. In 1924, Tagore asked Elmhirst to accompany him as his personal secretary on a tour of China, Japan and Argentina to exchange cultural ideas and methods of farming. On his return Tagore instructed Elmhirst “You must marry and create an institution of your own – in England. Choose some place, preferably in Devon, it is so beautiful there.” (Rabindranath Tagore, 1925, The Dartington Hall Trust Archives). Tagore’s belief that the arts must play a full part in the life of any community was to leave a lasting impression on Leonard and the development of Dartington which soon drew visionary thinkers and artists from around the world to its beautiful estate.
The Dartington Hall Trust was created in the 1930s by Leonard and his American wife, Dorothy. The daughter of the millionaire William C. Whitney, Dorothy was to fund Leonard Elmhirst’s work with Tagore at ‘Sriniketan’ as well as the renovation and development of Dartington Hall. Elmhirst later wrote: 'Here my wife and I were trying to establish a variety of enterprises, educational, research and commercial, not unlike a mingling of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Tagore has visited us there in 1926 and after his first exploration of the garden and river below, to my question ‘whether it would do?’ had replied "Elmhirst, it will do"'. (The Dartington Hall Trust archives)
Dartington, a medieval hall set within a 1,200 acre estate in South Devon was purchased by the Elmhirsts in 1925 and soon became a centre for experimentation, rural regeneration and the promotion of arts. Dartington’s founding values were closely aligned to the principles laid down by Rabindranath Tagore. After Tagore’s death Leonard Elmhirst addressed an audience at Sriniketan with the following words 'To respect the individual, to treat each day as a new opportunity for some creative experiment, to look upon the whole of life and all its processes as the natural playground for human art and measurement, those habits of mind I have learnt to appreciate from our Founder-President. It is some of these same principles that we learnt from the Poet that we have been trying out at Dartington since 1925.' (The Dartington Hall Trust archives). Today, the 'Dartington Experiment' continues. Dartington is a pioneering social enterprise and a centre for new ideas and initiatives in the arts, social justice, and sustainability.
According to the Elmhirst archives, on his second visit to Dartington in 1930 at the age of 69, 'one day Tagore asked for bottles of coloured ink, and, when these arrived, there began to emerge a series of paintings and sketches.' (The Dartington Hall Trust Archives). Leonard and Dorothy had two children, Ruth and William Elmhirst. This particular work hailed from the personal collection of William Elmhirst. Rabindranath is also known to have gifted seventeen works to the Dartington Trust. Some of these were sold in a de-accession from the Trust at the Sotheby’s London auction of 15 June 2010. The interest in the works well exceeded all expectations. They achieved unprecedented record prices for the time highlighting the tremendous interest in Tagore's paintings in India and across the world.
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