Tagore’s world of colour

Tagore’s world of colour

Article dated - Jan 2003

If ‘red’ is not what others mean by ‘red’, if ‘green’ is not what others mean by ‘green’, then how does that difference affect an artist’s style? Partial colour blindness is bound to ‘colour’ a person’s entire perception of the world. As it allegedly did Rabindranath Tagore’s world.

A little known fact about Rabindranath Tagore is that he was protanopic. Dr. Jyotirmoy Bose, an ophthalmologist who has done valuable work on the achromats of Bishnupur in West Bengal, also wrote a short paper, jointly with the British vision scientist R. W. Pickford, on colour vision and aesthetic problems in pictures by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore had a partial colour vision deficiency, the kind known as protanopia, in which the wavelengths of light that we see as the colour red are lost to the eye, and there is confusion between red and green in perception.

How did Tagore’s colour vision affect the process of his becoming a visual artist? How does he use form and colour? What is the relationship between those two components in his paintings? Were there foreign influences along the way? These questions have been answered with thousands of references in a book called, Ronger Rabindranath, Rabindranather Sahitye o Chitrakalay Ronger Byabahar, (Tagore of Colours, A Study of the Use of Colour in the Writings and Art of Rabindranath Tagore’.) written by Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Sushobhan Adhikary with the scientific collaboration of Adrian Hill and Robert Dyson.

Tagore’s art started with creating zoomorphic patterns in black and white. These early works were doodles resembling grotesque creatures. Indeed, at that time they were seen as scribbling and not art. The art scene in the 20’s was dominated by the traditionalism of the Bengal school and the academism of art school trained artists. He was definitely not a traditionalist and his art reflected influences of primitivism and expressionism. As he once said, "My poetry is for my countrymen; my paintings are my gift to the West..." Two other figures deviated from the traditional, Rabindranath's nephew Gaganendranath Tagore whose work was quasi-cubist in nature, and Jamini Roy who gave up academic realism and returned to village folk style. This trio of artists could be considered the earliest modernists of Indian visual art. Since then, critics have been discovering a more modern and disquieting artist in Tagore the painter, as opposed to Tagore the poet. 

His style reflected various influences. African, Malanggan, Chinese (bronzes), Peruvian, Haida, Tlingit. But it is essentially expressionist. The attraction to primitive art, the distortion of form, and the aberrant use of colour are clear markers. The angular composition, the division into simple coloured planes, the use of the anti-line, also shows the influence of expressionist woodcut. He tried to recreate the texture of the woodcut print in pen-and-ink work. He experimented with black ink for a long time before he moved to painting in colour. The recurrent themes in his work are mythical and grotesque animals, birds, self-portraits, landscapes, all with his unique form, composition, rhythm.

Conscious and unconscious references of his colour perception problem are littered throughout his literature, paintings, letters and published talks. For instance, in Yurop-yatrir Diary, his account of his European travels of 1890, he talks about the facial complexion of Italian women, saying that their colour is like that of grapes, not much whiter than that. Confusion between pale pink and pale green, of course, falls within the scope of protanopia. In a passage in Chhinnapatrabali, (Tagore’s letters to his niece Indira Devi) Tagore jocularly refers to himself as “a celebrated colour-blind person”. Tagore had long discussions on his art with Romain Rolland. Himself a Nobel laureate, Rolland wrote in his book 'Inde-journal', in 1926, "The other day Tagore was discussing his application of colour in paintings. He likes very little red colour, the dominance of red colour in Italian village did not attract him. His love goes violet and blue." Thus we find new meaning now in his words, “Aaj shobar ronge rong mishate hobe.” (“Today I must blend my colours with everyone’s colour.”)

He did not try to learn European-style naturalistic painting, though his own poetry of the 1890’s show the influence of the female nude of classical Western art. While Tagore’s poetry explored many stories and legends from Indian antiquity, he did not follow the parallel movement in art, with its pale pastel colours and wash technique. Excellence in this technique could not be achieved by someone with a colour vision deficiency. Tagore felt a stronger attraction to Japanese art, which was linked to Calligraphy. Theories of colour mysticism (Itten, Kandinsky) and speculations on synaesthesia are likely to have interested him. He found a route to art through primitivism, then developed it through studying the woodcut, and further by studying the way expressionist artists were breaking all rules in the construction of forms and the application of colours. He realized that it was not necessary to be naturalistic in the use of either forms or colours.

The range of colours in his paintings is limited, in keeping with what one might expect of a protanopic artist. Almost a half of the bottles in Tagore’s paint box, held in the archives, are forms of red or green, even though he rarely uses red-green contrasts. As in literature, so in painting, his favourite technique was to contrast light and dark, to put layers of coloured ink on paper, one layer on top of another, creating dark areas outlined or criss-crossed with luminosity. A number of his paintings are actually monochromatic, working out tonal variations of a single hue. He tends to paint dark scenes, there is a lot of brown which could have been a dominant colour in his field of vision, and probably resulted from his ceaseless colour experiments. Surprisingly, while he sings hymns in praise of the colour blue in his writings (blue is the most predominant colour in the protanopic line of vision), he does not use a great deal of blue in his paintings. He was probably intrigued by what the colour red was all about, that area of darkness about which others were so ecstatic, and must have mixed and matched pigments, like a man possessed. Unlike literature, experiments with colours in paintings could be conducted without restrictions, especially under the genre of expressionism.

In spite of any problems he may have faced, he creates a haunting visual world of forms and colours in his pictures, his unique signature world. He explains in 'My Pictures', "The world of sound is a tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite. The Universe has its only language of gesture, it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in this world proclaims in the dumb signal of lines and colours... the miracle of its existence. In a picture the artist creates the language of undoubted reality. People often ask me about the meaning of my pictures. I remain silent even as my pictures are. It is for them to express and not to explain. They have nothing ulterior behind their own appearance... and that appearance carries its ultimate worth. Love is kindred to art, it is inexplicable. Other factors of life... may be important, but Art is inevitable."

Comments ()

Copyright © 2013 natsybydesign.com