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Detail of an untitlted work by Rabindranath Tagore
Detail of an untitlted work by Rabindranath Tagore

Visual Arts

Rabindranath Tagore: An overachiever's painterly side Add to ...

Poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, short-story writer, Indian independence hero, international philosopher-celebrity, Nobel Prize for literature winner … and painter: Rabindranath Tagore, overachiever.

While Tagore’s works are still widely read, his paintings aren’t as well known. A new exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, offers a glimpse into the visual mind of one of the 20th century’s most important writers. Surprisingly, however, Tagore’s inks-on-paper are not overtly literary in subject matter or cerebral in tone. Many of the works carry the rough, joyfully incomplete look of doodles or studies.

This is not a criticism. Tagore’s paintings betray an intriguing mix of pensiveness and uncertainty – especially in the animal figures and ghostly portraits of elongated, wan figures. Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if the paintings are worthy of consideration in and of themselves. Celebrity is a powerful magnet.

Still, there is plenty to admire here: Tagore’s use of deep, drenched colours, his neo-primitive take on local fauna (one that reminds me of Australian aboriginal bark paintings, to which Tagore may have been exposed in his extensive travels) and his buoyant semi-abstract approach to portraiture. (Tagore’s long, oval-faced figures clearly owe a debt to Modigliani.)

Perhaps the best way to approach these works is to look at them as products of a very busy, word-fuelled mind at rest, a brain seeking relief from the parsing and phrasing of life’s big questions via reliably familiar visual stimuli – the secretive face of a beautiful, long-haired woman, a symmetrical row of lush, tall trees, the gangly, awkward walk of a long-legged bird.

The Last Harvest: Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore runs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until July 15.

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