– Indrani Halder
“Ami chanchalo haey , ami shudurer piyashi” (“I am restless, I thirst after the distant”), Tagore had written in one of the many poems expressive of his wanderlust. The desire to reach out to the distant and the unknown in in a transcendence of the hidebound and the mundane was not only integral to his creative work , translated into physical terms, it led him to criss-cross the globe in search of experience, relationships, and intellectual stimulation in the shape of ideas that would ignite creativity in the many worlds he inhabited. Westward travels attracted him and each visit yielded dividends since he was exposed to various ideational stimuli even as he filtered them through his artistic conscience as well as the traditions which had shaped him.
To America, the poet travelled five times, from 1912 to 1930. While the ostensible reason for the first visit, from 1912 to 1913, accompanied by his son, Rathindranath who had studied agricultural technology in Urbana was to recuperate from an ailment, it had been a fruitful stay since he was invited to lecture allover the country – in Urbana, Boston, New York, and at the universities of Harvard and Chicago. At Ezra Pound’s behest, six of his Gitanjali poems had been published in the Poetry magazine of December, 1912. In an interesting detour, he had also visited the Armory Show, held in Chicago in 1913, a path-breaking exhibition displaying paintings by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, as indeed art-work by Impressionists, Pointillists, Fauvists and Cubists of all shades and colors. While this exposure to the revolutionary techniques of Western Modernist painting was to be succeeded by an encounter with the innovations of the Impressionists in the treatment of time, space, light and colour which he encountered in 1920 on a visit to Paris, would it be too circumspect to suggest that the early acquaintance with radical Western art-movements was to remain in ferment in the artist’s consciousness, a subliminal presence, till his own, later, eruption into the world of visual art?
In 1924, Tagore was in Argentina, a guest at San Isidro of Victoria Ocampo whose empathetic interest in his idle doodlings in the Puravi manuscript then claiming his attention, encouraged him to branch out in a more sustained manner and cross the threshold into the silent but intense realm of painting. In the years that were to follow, the poet reincarnated himself as a painter to whom, frequently, the visual medium was the preferred vehicle for the anguish and the aspirations he felt but could express in his verbal and cerebral art. The paintings came in a torrent, inundating the other art-forms he practiced, as outpourings on whatever came to hand, canvas, brown-paper wrappings or backs of envelopes, with vibrant colors laid on with brush or bare fingers. To Rothenstein, he wrote,
“They certainly possess psychological interest being products of untutored fingers and untrained mind. I am sure they do not represent what they call Indian art.” (Imperfect Encounter, 27)
The paintings were never exhibited publicly in India in Tagore’s lifetime as if in ironic justification of his statement in a conversation with Romain Rolland in 1930: “My songs and poems, locked in my native language, I have given to my native country, my pictures I have brought as a gift to the West.” (Aronson , 98). The very fist exhibition of these paintings, 400 of them, was held in Paris, at the Galerie Pigalle, in May 1930, with the help of Victoria Ocampo and Countess Nouailles. Critical accolades followed the poet-painter as the exhibition travelled to different cities in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Russia. Finally, the paintings crossed the Atlantic to the New World which, Tagore felt, would be receptive to the newness of this art-work that could be described as ‘dreamwork’ or ‘traumwork’, to quote Albrecht Duerer across several centuries.
Did the paintings create in America the stir they did in Europe? The first exhibition was held in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts, in October 1930, with an enthusiastic and explanatory “Foreword” by the eminent Indian art-historian and philosopher, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy concluded his critique with the following remarks:
“The artist, like a child, invents his own technique as he goes along; nothing has been allowed to interfere with zest. The means are always are always adequate to the end in view: this is not ‘Art’ with a capital A, on the one hand, nor, on the other, a mere pathological self-expression; not art intended to improve our minds, nor to provide for the artist himself an ‘escape’; but without ulterior motives, truly innocent, like the creation of a universe.” (Coomaraswamy, Foreword)
This exhibition was followed by a second in November, 1930, at the 56th Galleries in New York where the exhibition catalogue carried a brief foreword by Tagore himself, “The Language of Pictures,” in which the painter emphasized the ‘inevitability’ of art and his own abdication of any responsibility to explain the ‘meaning’ of his paintings. A third exhibition, also with this foreword, was held in Philadelphia.
Apart from Coomaraswamy’s “Foreword” and the poet’s own modest introduction, not much coverage of these exhibitions is available. American press-reviews were sparse and strangely unresponsive. The New York Times Magazine of October 19th, 1930, had, on the poet’s arrival, carried an interview-cum-review article by S.J. Woolf, boldly titled, “India’s Poet Who Waits For The Dawn.” The first section of the essay presents an awed description of the translucent splendour of the ‘poet-prophet’ and starts with the following eulogy:
“A wise man has come from the East, but the gifts he bears are not gold and frankincense and myrrh, for to him these things mean little. It is a song of the sun’s glad gold that he brings, that and the music of the clouds and forests and of the mellow moon. His gifts are intangible yet incalculable lyrics of love and life, a rhythm of unity, a value of being a harmony of design in all creation.” (New York Times Magazine, Section 5, p. 9)
In the second, and perhaps more intimate section, however, the poet answers the reviewer’s questions as to his present preoccupation with painting. “I cannot claim any merit for my courage, for it is the unconscious courage of the unsophisticated like that of one who walks in a dream on a perilous path.” (9) He disclaimed any training except that of rhythm, “the rhythm in thought.” On his paintings, he commented,
“They are versifications in lines. Whatever merit they have is a rhythmic significance of form which is ultimate and which does not depend on any interpretation of an idea or the representation of a fact.” (ibid)
The same New York Times Magazine published a brief and far less enthusiastic review of Tagore’s art-exhibition in its November 30, 1930 issue (Section 9, p. 12). If the art-work could be seen as “spray from the mystic fountain whose major waters have been communicated in words,” wrote the unnamed art-critic, the “approach to them would have been easier.” He goes on to assert, however, that “one is constrained to view them as art, and in doing so, one cannot rate them very high.” (ibid) To him, the paintings are merely “decorative designs” possessing “definite meanings” for the artist (something Tagore had specifically disclaimed) which “escape the visitor.” The “patterns,” according to the critic, are “aesthetically satisfying, but they betray the naive groping of a hand more used to the pen than to the brush; the groping of a mind all at sea because of the strangeness of the medium attempted.” (ibid) The reviewer reluctantly concedes that the paintings have “certain queer haunting beauties of light” but holds that they “are never really articulate.”(ibid) He puts the seal of impervious conventionality on the review with his concluding remark: “in the end we turn aside, not without impatience.” (ibid)
What are we to make of this total misconception of and apathy to the startling innovativeness of Tagore’s visual art so radically in contrast to the eager response of European viewers? How may the unexpected reticence, if not rebuff, of the American art-world be explained? Perhaps, if the time-place equation were to be taken into account, certain circumstances and factors may be pinpointed as contributing to this apparently inexplicable attitude.
In the first place, steeped as they were in the gloom of the ‘Great Depression’ that had hit the continent in the late Twenties, the American people far preferred the ‘Poet-Prophet from the East’ persona that had been attributed to Tagore in consonance with his optimistic message of a global harmony and a revival of spiritual values. It had been this message of hope that had prompted Helen Keller to state in the New York American of December 7th, 1930, “Tagore was the supreme prophet in a movement that would result in a world-wide awakening of the brotherhood of all nations.” (Stephen Hay, 460) Confronted with this prophet image, the painter receded into insignificance.
Moreover, the Depression-era of stark urban poverty and unemployment concomitant with industrial decline had resulted in the inclination of the American people towards pragmatic and material concerns than an enchantment with the oriental painter’s dream-world of inscapes. American painters of the ‘Ash-Can School’ were perhaps more in tune with the prevailing mood.
Finally, in 1930, American viewership, acquainted as it might have been with mainstream social realism in art, was yet unprepared for the innovatory Abstractionist art which was to be the legacy, a decade later, of radically experimental artists like Mondrian, Tanguy or Chagall, who had fled Nazi persecution in Europe. It has also been remarked that the American psyche had been, most commonly, reluctant to relinquish form altogether in art. The movement of Impressionism, for instance, while early pollinating American art, had acquired on this continent an identity quite distinct from its European original, a major thrust of which was to pulverize form in a play of light and color as did Tagore though the school of American Impressionists were reluctant to. Hence the puzzlement of the New York Times art-critic who condemned Tagore’s painting as “inarticulate.”
Whatever the reason, the passivity of the American people to his paintings could not have gone unnoticed by the poet despite the attention, even adulation, he received in New York and Chicago at gatherings attended by the cognoscenti of the cities, as also by Herbert Hoover, then President of the United States. While he had written elatedly from Europe to friends and admirers in India of the appreciation his paintings had received on that continent, he remained silent on the exhibitions held in America. Indeed, he considered this final visit to America an unproductive one, in his impatience to return home and apply himself to the artistic form which, in the autumn of his life, seemed to be claiming much of his attention.
Lago, Mary M. Imperfect Encounter :Letters of William Rothenstein and Rabindranath Tagore 1911-1941. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Aronson ,Alex and Kripalani , Krishna, eds. Rolland and Tagore. Calcutta: Visva Bharati, 1945.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Foreword to an Exhibition of Rabindranath Tagore’s Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, October 1930.
New York Times Magazine. October 19, 1930. Section 5, p. 9.
New York Times Magazine. November 30, 1930. Section 9, p. 12 .
Hay, Stephen N. “Rabindranath Tagore in America.” American Quarterly. No. 3 , Autumn,1962.