An unnamed Tagore painting of a “married couple”, from the 1930s, will be auctioned by Christie’s on September 22, priced at between $120,000 and $180,000 (Rs 88 lakh-Rs 1.3 crore).
The painting was acquired directly from Rabindranath Tagore by Edith Andreae, a literary executor and editor of the works of her brother, Walther Rathenau, and her Berlin banker husband, Friedrich. It was passed down in the Rathenau family as an heirloom. Rathenau was a German industrialist, writer and liberal politician.
Christie’s tells potential buyers that while Tagore is “still best known for his poetry and songs, his importance as an artist was recognized when he became one of nine painters designated as Indian National Art Treasures, meaning their work from such a cultural value is that it cannot be exported”.
It’s therefore rare, says Damian Vesey, specialist in South Asian modern and contemporary art at Christie’s, for one of Tagore’s photos to be auctioned.
The painting “will be put up for sale at the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Auction in September, in a year marking Tagore’s 160th birthday”.
Vesey says Tagore’s depiction of the figures in the untitled (pair) is different from most of his paintings of human subjects. “In the 10 years I’ve been at Christie’s, I’ve never seen a large Tagore watercolor so intimate, and there’s a softness you don’t see in much of his work.”
According to Vesey, “He was at the height of his fame in the 1920s and early 1930s, and I think he benefited a lot from that, spreading his ideas and reaching as many people as possible. He felt that his art was able to express what his writing could not, and a major exhibition in the thriving art scene of Paris, and then throughout Germany, would have maximum impact.”
Vesey also finds it difficult to say whether the paintings were considered Indian art or modern art. “I think it’s impossible not to see them as modern art, but the appeal would have been that they belonged to Rabindranath from India. There was certainly an element of ‘exotic India’ as an identity marker for these works.
Tagore is not much of a narrative painter, but there is a specificity to this work and a sensitivity that would make you wonder if it was a depiction of two real people or if it came from his imagination. And there aren’t many works by Tagore that you would ask that question about.
“When he’s not painting his fantastic birds, he tends to paint one dominant figure in the center of the frame, sometimes in profile but more often face-on and with that kind of classically recognizable long nose and mask-like face. So having this intimate image of two figures in profile is very unusual.”