Gaganendranath Tagore only began to paint in 1905, quite late in his life, much like his polymath uncle Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, it was Gaganendranath who illustrated his uncle’s autobiographical text, Jeevansmriti, around 1912. A few years before that, he helped establish the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta, with his brother Abanindranath, where several exhibitions of his work would be held. Apart from his early paintings and illustrations, the artist is known for his refined watercolor landscapes, unique cubist constructions, experiments with black and white photography, and portfolios of caricatures like Birupa Bajra and Adbhut Lok, which offered a satirical take on Bengali society of the time.
This work is a perfect example of the varied brushwork and wash techniques that Tagore perfected, first under the tutelage of the Japanese artists Kakuzo Okakura and Yokoyama Taikan, and then through his own experimental creative process. Beautifully rendered in a soft palette of black ink wash, a charismatic silhouette turns its back to the viewer as it stands in front of an evanescent light that is seems to radiate from him or emerge from the horizon.
Talking about a similar work titled O Master, which is now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, R. Siva Kumar delivers a fascinating interpretation, noting, “the figure in O Master compared to the one in The Poet is slightly elongated and the light framing the figure a little accentuated, otherwise the image is essentially unaltered. The figure is silhouetted and the streak of light on the horizon behind him is like a polar aureole, and it disperses softly around the figure forming a kind of aura. By calling the first version The Poet Gaganendranath seems to have been making an allusion to Rabindranath to whose general form the silhouetted image broadly corresponds.” Further examining the iterations of Gaganendranath's depictions of his uncle and mentor, Siva Kumar offers that the present lot is likely to represent a shift from a simple portrait to a status symbol. “In the present painting the individual who has been consciously idealized by Gaganendranath in the previous works is subliminally internalized and turned into what can be described in Jungian terms as a psychic or archetypal image of his self, which is represented here as a guru-like wise old man. And such symbolic representation of the psyche through heroic figures, ‘supplies the strength that the personal ego lacks’.” (R. Siva Kumar, Paintings of Gaganendranath Tagore, Kolkata, 2015, p. 339)
The Poet is a strong testimony of Gaganendranath’s admiration for his uncle as well as a primary example of his own masterful handling of light and shadow. Writing behind the painting, Gaganendranath quoted the first line of one of his revered uncle’s poems:
I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.
The poem continues:
The light of thy music illumines the world. The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song, but vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled. Ah, thou hast made my heart captive in the endless meshes of thy music, my master
R. Tagore, No.3, Gitanjali, 1912