Not poets alone are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, but all artists; theirs is the understanding of life’s experience. While others are inanely pre-occupied with the appearances of reality, they thrill to its emotional content and seek feverishly to release it from meaningless and unvital encrustations into the freedom of significant expression; the soul’s “elan” thus breaks through its mechanical bondage and men become “like gods” -- they create. Political movements everywhere are bound to be futile and fatuous unless, Greek-wise, they embrace the whole of life; to do this they have to be related organically to a background of aesthetic consciousness. And that this country is capable of producing an artist like Gaganendranath Tagore is in no small degree a heartening sign of the times. The results of the recent adventures of this spirit were to be seen at the Exhibition of Oriental Art held at No.6, Corporation Street during the month of January.
About a year ago this artist felt drawn towards the technical discoveries of Picasso and it has been truly astonished to see how far in the short space of twelve months he has travelled from his crude, hesitant beginnings in the unrepresentational organisation of form in the direction of “pure art”. He has not only mastered the kinetic possibilities of line, but, realising its inherent disabilities, has ventured farther afield and transcended Cubism. Unlike so many of his contemporaries in Europe, he has used it as a means of enriching his aesthetic vocabulary but refused to be enslaved by its formalism. For he is alive to the supreme importance of colour in painting, its generating function in relation to form, volume and space; he realises that form should be composed through colour, weight distributed by it, and space placed and displaced -- that ecstatic ecstasy is to be evoked in painting through the medium of the paint. European art has for a considerable time now been engaged in clearing the emotion of the picture of the cobwebs of anecdotic, literary association; and it is vastly to the credit of this Oriental artist that not content with trying to epitomise in his work -- harmoniously with the genius of Indian art -- the results of the technical enquiries since Cezanne, he should be leaping forward to further experimentation. Already, what he has thus independently achieved should entitle him to a place along with Morgan Russel and Macdonald Wright as one of “the primitives of a new art” whose purpose is that painting should shed all that does not appertain to the energy of colour. Indeed, this fellow-countryman of ours has made himself a force that will have to be reckoned with by the two Americans in their race for the discovery of art’s new world of Pure Synchronism. Like them, he, too, is conscious that every human emotion takes the form of one and only one of the various arts; that if it takes the form of words, it is expressible only through literature, if of sounds, only through painting; and that through no other of these mediums should we seek to conjure up an emotion than the one to which it is inherently native. Of course, none of these artists has yet finally reached the promised land, but they have, at any rate, charted their seas. The several stages of Tagore’s development from painting in two dimensions to painting dynamically “in the round” were discernible in his recent exhibits. Beginning with the flat decorative pattern of his “Festivities”, he has arrived at that composition of beautifully poised movement of form and space in colour which he calls “Aladdin”. No doubt, our “laudatores temporis acti” will continue for a long while yet to complain that such art is not “natural”, that they have seen nothing like it in the objective world. Of course, not. Precisely in this feature its merit. Recognisability in painting only confounds the emotional values of an art which is concerned not with the effects of being, but with the causes, not with the photographic aspects of life, but with its creative energies. Tagore has already gone far, but he has yet some distance to traverse before he “gets there” to unrecognisable reality, pure and unfettered. In his “Birth of a Song”, for instance, the composition was disturbed and its vitality arrested by the realistic presence in the foreground of a human figure that purports to “represent” the singer. Again, all his pictures, barring one, were labelled off with literary captions that succeeded only in blurring their genuine significance. (In fact, the one he called “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” beguiled one critic into enthusing over its “poetry”). The exception, which bore the name of “Symphony”, by a curious irony disclosed the least rhythmic freedom of ordonnace , thanks to its excessive preoccupation with verisimilitude. But his “Aladdin” was a superb piece of work, subtly and potently expressive of joyous energy, hieroglyphing reality, as Dr. Cousins might say. To appreciate this picture adequately one was not to view the cycloramic life on the canvas as external to oneself, but, following an excellent precept of the Futurists, project oneself imaginatively into the heart of its movement and experience from within its intensity of ordered dynamism.
Published in The Modern Review for March, 1924