Rabindranath Tagore grew up in a family of reformers and patriots. His father Debendranath Tagore was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj and his family was famous for debating ideas on religion, politics and literature. His approach to life, his graciousness, dignity, fearless universal humanism and true understanding of social responsibility is as inspiring and timely as it was during his lifetime. Today, the world remembers him as the first Asian to win the Noble Prize in Literature in 1913. This achievement alone stands as testament for an extraordinary life, but Tagore was much more than a Noble Laureate -- he was the very embodiment of cultural awakening and is considered a national figure influential in shaping modern India.
Tagore turned to painting later in his life. By the time of his first exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Galerie Pigalle, Paris in 1930, Tagore, at the age of 69, had been recognized as one of the greatest writers who had ever lived. Tagore had an early inclination toward representational art but had given up hope of being a professional painter around 1900. Over the years, Tagore maintained private journals where he continued to doodle and sketch. Then almost suddenly in 1924, while in Argentina as Victoria Ocampo's guest, his doodles assumed more elaborate and expressive intent.
Ocampo recognized Tagore's talent and found spiritualism in his images of prehistoric monsters, birds and faces - they were much more than naturalistic interpretations. Compared to his early doodles these were not entirely spontaneous, but inspired by his interest in anthropology and the examples of both primitive and modern art he had seen. On his first trip to England and Paris, 1879, Tagore visited the British Museum and attended the Universal Exposition. During his tour of 1912, Tagore discovered Rodin and probably saw the Armory Show in Chicago, and he owned a copy of Friedrich Ratzel's History of Mankind, 1898 and Walter Lehmann's The Art of Old Peru, 1924.
R. Siva Kumar elaborates, "The inclination to know and understand other cultures was innate to his personality, and contributed to his emergence as an artist. A world traveller and a creative artist with interest in cross-cultural contacts, he looked at the art of the countries he travelled to. Sometimes he did this with greater purposefulness and self-awareness, as he did during his 1916 visit to Japan. But often he merely absorbed them, and without discussion or record allowed them to sink to the bottom of his awareness, from where they subliminally guided his thoughts and rose to the surface when required. Primitive and modern art that he saw during his many travels abroad played such a role in his emergence as an artist." (R. Siva Kumar, 'Rabindranath Tagore as Painter and Catalyst of Modern Indian Art', The Last Harvest, Ahmedabad, 2011, p. 56)
These influences on Tagore evolved over his lifetime and emerged as expressions of innovation and modernity through his paintings which were unlike anything being produced by Indian artists at the time. In the present work, Tagore suppressed physical detail, removing ears and pairing the mouth and lips to basic curvilinear forms. The body is represented as a solid field of color. The figure brings to mind Paul Klee’s Yellow Man, 1921 that Tagore may have seen in Weimar. The mask-like rendering of the face and totemic abstraction of the body speak to the artist’s natural inclination toward the tenets of what we now understand as primitivism in modern art; the search for symbols and meaning in visual forms borrowed from Non-Western, pre-historic and rural traditions and people.
Painting allowed Tagore to break away from the limitations of language. He felt that painting, unlike any other art form was closer to nature and could be universally understood and shared. Through his travels, Tagore observed first-hand the rapid changes in the world during the early part of the 20th Century and the shaping of modern art in Europe and America. At home, he was immersed in the cultural revival that led to India's nationalist and anti-colonial movements. Ahead of his time and often at odds with political developments in India, Tagore believed that the highest form of humanity accepted and lived on the ideals of a universal culture. On this principle, Tagore founded Santiniketan and as Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, eloquently stated, Tagore was a "genius of modern India who built bridges between East and West as well as the past and the future." (R. Siva Kumar, ed., Rabindrachitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata, 2011, vol. 1, frontispiece)
This painting was originally in the collection of Leonard Elmhurst, an ardent admirer and friend of Tagore who had spent time in the artist’s idyllic space of higher learning, Santiniketan. Having been deeply impressed by the principles of Santiniketan, Elmhirst established Dartington Hall Trust in the 1930s with his wife Dorothy on similar values and principles of rural regeneration, promotion of the arts and experimentation. Tagore visited Dartington Hall in 1926 and 1930. This painting was probably gifted to the Elmhirsts in 1939 after the exhibition at Calmann Gallery, London, in which it was first shown.