“I am hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me”: The Paintings of Tagore

Untitled, 1934 Rabindranath Tagore
Untitled, 1934 Rabindranath Tagore

Imagine blowing out the candles on your sixtieth birthday cake and thinking, “My wish this year is to become a painter. Or…no, not just a painter….a world renowned painter!” Your whole life, you’ve seen family member succeed as artists, but you’ve never seriously tried your hand at painting. You have never received any formal training in the visual arts. And you also happen to be partially color blind. Think this scenario is too far fetched to be real? Think again.

A major figure in the Bengali Renaissance, Rabindranath Tagore became the 1913 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. His poetry is beloved in India and he wrote the song that would eventually become India’s national anthem. With his large body of written work and his legacy as a politically and artistically influential writer, one might assume that Tagore was solely dedicated the written word. Not so. When he was in his sixties, Tagore decided to take his life-long habit of doodling in the margins of his manuscripts and develop it into a full-blown skill that would eventually be hailed across the globe.


It wasn’t until 1930, after a youth and a middle age spent developing his talents as a writer and an activist, that he began exhibiting work as a visual artist. If that isn’t surprising enough, Tagore also broke ground by being the first Indian artist to be widely exhibited in the West.

According The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, who hosted the exhibit of Tagore’s work in 2012,

“His paintings and drawings even today remain fresh and thought-provoking while they continue to elude any kind of categorization under the narrow boundaries of “isms” of other modern art experiments. Through his paintings, like in his poems, songs, and literature, he searched for a unifying theme or universal truth that ran as a common thread through all his creations.”

Untitled Oil Painting by Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore’s unyielding search for a “unifying theme or universal truth” appears all the more earnest when one takes into account these two things: First, In India, his paintings were mainly viewed as baffling. Second, in Europe, where Expressionism and Surrealism were gaining steam, his paintings fit neither these descriptions. As an unschooled painter—and someone who avoided formal education as much as possible—Tagore was as single-minded in his search for a “common thread” in his work as he was multifaceted in his means of finding it.

Rabindranath Tagore. Untitled (Striding bird), 1928

Rabindranath Tagore. Untitled (Striding bird), 1928

To mark the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday, The Ministry of Culture, India and the National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi commissioned an exhibition of Tagore’s work entitled “The Last Harvest.” The exhibit consists of 208 works, ranging from doodles to full scale paintings. The exhibit has been seen in Berlin, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Ontario, South Korea and Malaysia.

No matter what genre Tagore chose to work within, he was both modern and historically minded; committed to the idea of global citizenship and at the same time, deeply in love with the history and culture of his own people. Of course, there is much to be said about Tagore’s visual art—his style, his philosophy, and so on. But within this story of Tagore’s late-life forrary into a foreign medium, the simple but thrilling idea still lurks: it is never too late to try something new.

[Colleen Ahern]