Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Painter

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) is best known as a poet, and in 1913 was the first non-European writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Highly prolific, Tagore was also a composer – he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh – as well as an educator, social reformer, philosopher and painter. In India, he is regarded as a national figure whose achievements are as important as those of the anti-colonial nationalist Mahatma Gandhi (1869 –1948).

self portrait by Rabindranath Tagore
Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, self portrait by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Kolkata, India. Museum no. IS.94-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rabindranath Tagore grew up in an intellectual and artistic family. His nephews Abanindranath and Gaganendranath were leaders of the new art movement in Bengal during the early 20th century, which later came to be known as the Bengal School. However, he was immune to the impact of the movement and produced works that were unique in his time and later served to inspire many modern Indian artists.

Tagore took up painting relatively late in his career, when he was in his sixties. Nevertheless, he produced thousands of works and was the first Indian artist to exhibit across Europe, Russia and the United States. His painting style was very individual, characterised by simple bold forms and a rhythmic quality.

His first paintings were highly imaginative works, usually focusing on animals or imaginary creatures, which are full of vitality and humour. Human figures are depicted either as individuals with expressive gestures or as groups in theatrical settings. In portraits produced during the 1930s, he rendered the human face in a way reminiscent of a mask or persona. Tagore also produced landscape paintings, although these represent the smallest output among his works.

Animals / Composites

Tagore's earliest visual work began with doodles that turned crossed-out words and lines into images that became expressive and sometimes grotesque forms. They were unplanned and shaped by accidents and intuitive decisions. Many of them represent animals described by Tagore as "a probable animal that had unaccountably missed its chance of existence" or "a bird that only can soar in our dreams". Tagore enjoyed projecting a human gesture onto an animal body and vice versa. This exchange between the familiar and the unknown led him to create forms that are as expressive as they are inventive.

(Left to right:) Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Bengal, India. Museum nos. IS.77, 89 & 78-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum;
(Left to right:) Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Bengal, India. Museum nos. IS.74, 70 & 83-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Landscapes

Although he was untrained as an artist and sometimes referred to his paintings as "foundlings", the act of painting made Tagore increasingly observant and sensitive to the visible world, which he referred to as "a vast procession of forms". In his landscape paintings, which he focussed on later in his life, he often depicts nature bathed in evening light with radiant skies and forms coagulating into ominous silhouettes, invoking mystery and a foreboding silence.

(Left to right:) Lithograph, reproduction of ink drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Bengal, India. Museum no. IS.101-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum; Lithograph, reproduction of a drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Kolkata, India. Museum no. IS.104-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Figures

Tagore did not name his paintings, by leaving them untitled he tried to free them from a literary connection and encourage the viewer to generate their own understanding and meaning of the images. His depiction of figures in his paintings were informed by his experience of the theatre as a playwright, director and actor. His figures have a dramatic presence, animated by gestures which do not suggest everyday activities. Sometimes their costumes, and the furniture and objects that surround them, play a role in this transformation of the ordinary into a dramatic motif. Rather than merely recognising situations and emotions in his paintings, they invite us to construct a narrative.

(Left to right:) Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Bengal, India. Museum nos. IS.75, 73 & 71-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Human faces

The human face is a constant in Tagore's work, demonstrating his ongoing interest in human persona. As a writer, especially of short stories, he was used to linking human appearance with an inner human essence. Through his painting he found a similar opportunity in the representation of the human face. In the beginning, this usually led him to turn the face into a mask of a social type. Later, as his skills developed, shadows of faces he encountered began to meld with the painted faces and give them the resonance and expansiveness of characters.

(Left to right:) Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Kolkata, India. Museum no. IS.105-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum; Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1935, Bengal, India. Museum no. IS.82-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum; Lithograph, reproduction of drawing, by Rabindranath Tagore, 1928 – 35, Bengal, India. Museum no. IS.93-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum; Lithograph, reproduction of watercolour painting, by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Kolkata, India. Museum no. IS.87-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum
Background image: (Detail) Lithograph, reproduction of drawing by Rabindranath Tagore, about 1930 – 40, Bengal, India. Museum no. IS.74-1961. © Victoria and Albert Museum