Portrait of the Bengali artist, painter and composer, Rabindranath Tagore, c. 1917 (Photo IanDagnall Computing  Alamy Stock Photo); Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Untitled (Couple), c. early 1930s

Rabindranath Tagore: a National Art Treasure

The Indian Nobel prize-winning novelist is best known for his literature and music but, as this intimate artwork shows, his skill extended to painting, too

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was already regarded as India’s leading writer when, at the age of 60, he embarked on an additional career as a painter. Although he is still best known for his poetry and songs, his importance as an artist was recognised when he became one of nine painters designated Indian National Art Treasures, which means their work is of such cultural value that it cannot be exported.

It is therefore rare, says Damian Vesey, specialist in South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, for one of Tagore’s pictures to come up for auction.

It’s rarer still for one of such quality as Untitled (Couple), which he painted in around 1930, and which at 56.8 x 45.7 cm is considerably larger than most of his works. The painting is offered for sale in September’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction, in a year that marks Tagore’s 160th birth anniversary.

Rabindranath Tagore (right) with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, later Prime Minister of India, 1940. Photo Photo 12  Alamy Stock Photo
Rabindranath Tagore (right) with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, later Prime Minister of India, 1940. Photo: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

The scion of a prominent family in Calcutta, Tagore was an outspoken anti-imperialist and supporter of the freedom movement as well as a hugely prolific author of poetry, plays, essays, novels and short stories. In addition, he composed well over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra-sangeet, which even today are as popular among his fellow Bengalis as those from Bollywood films.

His volume of poems, Gitanjali, established his international reputation when it was published in London in 1912 in his own English translation, and the following year Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This resulted in him becoming a literary celebrity and making frequent tours of Europe and America. His flowing robes and long white hair and beard conformed to the common western conception of an Indian sage and his lectures attracted huge audiences. Jacob Epstein, who sculpted a striking bust of him in 1926, reported that ‘he carried no money and was conducted about like a holy man’.

Money was, however, needed to fund his travels, which was one of the reasons that in 1930 he brought some of his paintings to Europe, exhibiting them at the Galerie Pigalle in Paris, where they attracted the attention of both critics and buyers.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Untitled (Couple), c. early 1930s. Mixed media on paper laid on card. 22⅜ x 18 in (56.8 x 45.7 cm). Estimate $120,000-180,000. Offered in
South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 22 September 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Untitled (Couple), c. early 1930s. Mixed media on paper laid on card. 22⅜ x 18 in (56.8 x 45.7 cm). Estimate: $120,000-180,000. Offered in South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 22 September 2021 at Christie’s in New York

‘In the 1920s and early 1930s he was at the peak of his fame,’ says Vesey, ‘and I think he very much capitalised on that, wanting to spread his ideas and reach as many people as possible. He felt that his art was able to express something that his writing could not, and having a big exhibition in the thriving art scene of Paris, and then across Germany, would have maximum impact.’ It was in Germany that Untitled (Couple) was bought by a member of the Rathenau family, who are now selling it.

Tagore had received no formal training as an artist and many of his paintings started as notebook doodles, which he then worked up either into complex abstract forms or into images of birds and animals that had, as he put it, ‘unaccountably missed [their] chance of existence’.

He gave the impression that these works were achieved almost spontaneously, by exploiting the unconscious and the accidental. His paintings of people, such as Untitled (Couple), were also done from the imagination rather than from life, painted in a style that Vesey describes as ‘flat, non-naturalistic or naïve’.

Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, India, February 1940. Photo Dinodia Photos  Alamy Stock Photo
Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, India, February 1940. Photo: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

‘In Europe, his paintings were seen as the artworks of the guru and mystic,’ says Vesey, ‘and I think it is very hard to separate the art from the artist at that time.’ Vesey thinks it is also hard to say whether the paintings were considered as Indian art or Modern art. ‘I think it’s impossible not to see them as Modern art, but the pull would have been that they were by Rabindranath from India. There was definitely an element of “exotic India” being an identity marker for these works.’

In India itself, Tagore’s work is equally difficult to place. ‘His nephews Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore and painters such as Nandalal Bose are seen as critical figures when it comes to the Bengal School, and Rabindranath is a key part of that,’ says Vesey, ‘but aesthetically his work is so different from it.

In Untitled (Couple), the woman’s head-dress and the man’s hat provide visual cues, but if you look across the length and breadth of Tagore’s work, he is not, like many of the artists around him, saying: “Here I am, painting something that is quintessentially Bengali.”

Rabindranath Tagore at work. Photo Pictorial Press Ltd  Alamy Stock Photo
Rabindranath Tagore at work. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘I think you can perhaps look at his art in terms of what it’s not: it’s not painting of western or colonial subjects. In fact, it’s the complete antithesis of that European academic realism that the British were still encouraging in the first half of the 20th century. That’s where the revolutionary, nationalist, Bengali element comes in.’

Vesey says that Tagore’s portrayal of the figures in Untitled (Couple) is unlike most of his paintings of human subjects. ‘In the 10 years I’ve been at Christie’s, I’ve never seen a large Tagore watercolour that is so intimate, and there is a softness you don’t see in a lot of his work,’ he explains.

‘When he is not painting his fantastical birds, he tends to paint one dominant figure in the centre of the picture, sometimes in profile but more often face-on and with that kind of classically recognizable long nose and mask-like face. So having this intimate image of two figures in profile is very unusual.

‘Tagore’s not really a narrative painter, but there is a specificity to this work and a sensitivity that would make one ask whether it was a portrayal of two actual people or whether it came out of his imagination. And there aren’t many Tagore works you’d ask that question about.’