Anyone who has been to the Honnold-Mudd library has probably seen the collections of student artwork. Big paintings and photos hang on the walls, most commonly along the Honnold wing. But every so often, the library hosts a special art exhibition curated by professors at the Claremont Graduate University. This semester, the second floor of the Honnold library is hosting a photo exhibit by E.O. Hoppé featuring images from his 1929 trip to visit Nobel Prize-winning poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and painter, Rabindranath Tagore, at his home in Santiniketan. The exhibition, which is part of a larger series undertaken by Hoppé as a study of the Indian subcontinent, is hosted by the Foundation for Indic Philosophy and Culture. The exhibition, notable for its artistic and historical qualities, is also a great opportunity – these photos have just been released for a limited time after 60 years under lock and key in London.
The photos themselves are all in black and white and feature both people and landscapes. The series takes place in Northeastern India, in the Bengali town of Santiniketan (meaning abode of peace), where Tagore founded the Patha Bhavana school in 1901. Some photos show families living in the town and portraits of Tagore himself, while others document the activities of the students at Tagore’s growing Visva-Bharati University. At this revolutionary school, Tagore cast off the notions that strict repetition was the way to learn, opting for a reflective and passionate learning experience close to nature. It was a radical departure from tradition. Many of Tagore’s works criticize strict traditionalism, like Hindu orthodoxy in society (the novel Gora) and arranged marriages and the tense domestic situations they bring about (the short story Haimanti). Tagore was also widely read outside of India and remains a staple in the canon of Indian and South Asian literature. The portrait by Hoppe stands out among the group of almost exclusively European notables, highlighting Tagore among the great minds of his time.
Several photos show students gathered under trees listening intently to their professors lecturing on subjects like mathematics. One photo depicts a young music student practicing his sitar, while another shows female art students working hard at their crafts.
The most iconic portrait by Hoppé shows Tagore sitting at an angle to the camera, but staring straight through the frame. His expression carries a frown worn deeply into his face, sharp eyes and a long, white beard. In another portrait Tagore is reclined while dictating his thoughts to a student. In other portraits one can see students gathered around Tagore, listening to him speak or discussing their studies with him.
Hoppé, who is famous for his portraits, photographed distinguished subjects like Albert Einstein, Fritz Lang, Benito Mussolini, Paul Robeson, as well as Tagore and even Queen Elizabeth in 1923. His portraits are part historical document, part modern art photography and have catapulted him to the top of his field. Indeed, he was famous in his own right. “Rarely in the history of the medium has a photographer been so famous in his own lifetime among the general public. He was as famous as his sitters. It is difficult to think of a prominent name in the fields of politics, art, literature, and the theatre who did not pose for his camera,” said biographer Bill Jay in his book Emil Otto Hoppé: A Personal Snapshot.
While it would be easy to rush by the photos on your way to a caffeine-inspired cram-sesh, I would encourage you to spend just a moment to take them in. They capture a definite moment in time, a world unto itself. Hoppé wanted to highlight the exotic landscapes of India on his trip, as well as the people that lived there, and his photos, with simple beauty, do the job well. Until this year, these pieces of artwork were locked in a London photo library for over sixty years. They will be on display until April 15th and Claremont will be the only exhibition on the West Coast of the United States this year.