Art as revelation

Different strokes
Last Updated : 29 May 2010, 12:20 IST

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Dartington Hall Trust was founded by Leonard Elmhirst and his wife, Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst in 1925 near Totnes in South Devon, UK; a thousand acre estate, it was to serve as the base for an experiment in rural reconstruction.

Leonard (1893-1974) worked as Rabindranath Tagore’s secretary in India in the early 1920s, travelled the world with him and was deeply influenced by his thoughts. For Tagore, Leonard was a trusted friend and companion. The Nobel laureate is said to have visited Dartington on a number of occasions. In addition to Tagore’s paintings, Dartington possessed a huge archive of his photographs, letters and other ephemera.

By the time of writing this article, Sotheby’s London has announced that 12 paintings by Rabindranath Tagore belonging to Dartington Hall Trust would go under the hammer on June 15. According to the Trust, funds raised by the sale would be used to support its ambitious new plans to expand charitable programmes in the arts, social justice and sustainability.

All the Tagore’s works coming up for sale are appearing in the market for the first time and are untitled. The pre-sale combined estimate of the dozen paintings is 250,000 350,000 pounds. Except for a couple of landscapes, the set of paintings in watercolour, gouache, coloured ink and pastel on paper comprises portraits of men and women all rendered in Tagore’s inimitable style.

Three paintings showing a figure in green background (24 by 18 inch), a figure in yellow (24 by 16 inch) and portrait of a woman (19 by 15 inch) are expected to fetch upto 40,000 pounds each at the Sotheby’s auction. An intriguing portrait of a man with moustache (16 by 10 inch) comes with an estimate of 25,000 to 35,000 GBP, while the landscapes could get upto 20,000 GBP each.

Sotheby’s has had a successful track record of selling works by Tagore. A couple of years ago, it sold his ‘Bird’ for 70,000 GBP in London and ‘Head of a Woman’ for 104,500 USD in New York. In May 2008, an auction record for a Tagore’s painting was set when his ‘Death Scene’ from the collection of WG and M Archer was sold for 144,550 pounds.

Coming on the heels of the Sotheby’s announcement is a demand by the West Bengal government to stop the auction of Tagore’s paintings and bring back the works to India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is reported to have assured that his government would examine the proposal.

Breath of fresh air

When Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, ventured into the world of painting he was already 67 years old. Painting became an obsession with him and by the time he breathed his last at the age of 80, more than 2000 paintings had been produced.

Tagore’s first exhibition in India was held in Kolkata in 1931. This was preceded by his first public and international exhibition of paintings in May 1930 at the Gallerie Pigalle in Paris. The Paris show was followed by exhibitions in other countries, including England, Denmark and Sweden the same year.

The response to his paintings was overwhelming particularly in France, Germany and Russia. In Germany — where they were shown in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart — the large pack of viewers included the German President and the Nobel prize winning physicist, Albert Einstein.

“It is not surprising that the qualities of nave symbolism and graphic subtlety in Tagore’s paintings should have impressed Western critics, especially at a time when a great number of European painters were exploring possibilities in this direction,” writes artist-scholar K G Subramanyan (Moving Focus: Essays on Indian Art / Seagull Books). That it came from India and in the works of a non-professional painter should have taken them by surprise. Also these paintings had certain qualities of freshness and feeling that most Indian paintings of that time lacked.

Tagore’s paintings came to be recognised for their mature views, creative impulses and resolute symbolism. While his landscapes uncovered a dark, haunting and mysterious world, his portraits with pensive faces, soulful eyes and intensely lit profiles highlighted a sense of eerie silence and excruciating loneliness. Historians have observed with awe how the artist transformed his lack of formal training of art into an advantage and opened new horizons in the use of line and colour. Writers like William Archer who found parallels in the approaches of Tagore and Swiss/German artist Paul Klee (1879 1940) also saw a robust sexual symbolism in his painting.

As he painted more and more, Tagore developed a new stylistic and sophisticated approach which according to some critics, took away some of the nave decorative power of his earlier works. Nevertheless, the importance of Tagore’s painting and its revitalising impact on subsequent developments in modern Indian art came to be well recognised.

“Set beside most of the modern Indian painting of his time his work is like a breath of fresh air,” writes Subramanyan. “At a time when inordinate stylistic preoccupations were choking the creative nuclei of works of art, his work which ignored these and put faith in the promptings of the unconscious came as a refreshing difference. It also came as a proper corrective against overweening nationalistic proclivities in the field of art. The unorthodox ways in which he realised his paintings opened up new vistas to younger artists. His disregard for literary content and his treatment of a painting as a composite image also contributed to a radical change in the general outlook of art. These are not small contributions. They are basic and far-reaching.”

On his part, Tagore believed that in art, man revealed himself, not the object. For him, the truth of art was not in substance or logic, but in expression. The picture of a flower in a botanical book is information; its mission ends with our knowledge. But in pure art it is a personal communication. And therefore until it finds its harmony in the depth of our personality it misses the mark.

Published 29 May 2010, 12:20 IST

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