Nikolay Konstantinovich Roerich was an artist of versatile talents who lived an eventful life. He spent his first forty years in Russia, the land of his birth, devoted several years to expeditions into the countries of Central Asia and lived the last twenty years of his life in India. Roerich is known not only as an artist; he was an archaeologist, scholar, writer, poet, and a person of note in public affairs as well.
He was not indifferent to the social problems of his day, being deeply sensitive to the destinies of his native land and her people. His world outlook, however, mirrored many of the contradictions of the epoch, and he saw the solution to the problem of reshaping society solely in the field of ethics, assigning the decisive role to education. Roerich’s belief in the transforming powers of science and the arts induced him to devote much time and effort to the dissemination of knowledge on the culture of the past. N. Roerich was born in 1874 into the family of a lawyer in St. Petersburg. He evinced an interest in art and history in his childhood years. On graduating from the Academy of Arts, where he studied under the well-known landscapist A. Kuinji, and having simultaneously completed his studies at the faculty of law of the University, the young man of manifold talents decided to dedicate himself to art. V. Stasov, an outstanding connoisseur of ancient Russian culture and a man who deeply influenced the artistic life of the country, encouraged Roerich’s interest in the Russian past and acquainted him with a wealth of historical and ethnographical materials pertaining to ancient Russia.
Roerich’s very first works attracted the attention of prominent personalities in the world of art. The great Russian painter Ilya Repin noted his artistic capabilities. One of the artist’s first canvases, The Messenger (1897), was acquired by P. Tretyakov for his picture gallery. Sitting in a boat is a tired old man, a messenger, with a doleful expression on his face. The message he is carrying is one of woe: “Nation has risen against nation.” Roerich in his canvases did not attempt to illustrate actual historical events; he created, rather, a specific type of pictures of the past poeticizing the life of the ancient Slavs: the military campaigns, the building of new towns, the development of new lands, the hunting. This world is depicted in the pictures Vladimir’s Foray into Korsun (1900), Guests from Overseas (1902), and The Slavs on the Dnieper (1905). The stylistic peculiarities of Roerich’s compositions help the viewer to see a singular world: enormous, sturdy and strong are both the animate and inanimate forms in his pictures. His ships with heavy sails, his hills and mountains, his human figures all seem to be carved out of stone. The vivid colours with but a few combinations, the smooth unbroken contours of the objects, the calm rhythm of the massive forms—all these are conducive to creating an impression of clarity and monumentality. One cannot help noting, however, the artist’s idealization of the distant past. He imparted to that world a harmony and beauty which he failed to find in modern bourgeois society. The urge to flee into the past from the tragic contradictions of the life around him was common to many artists of his generation — Nesterov, Somov, Benois, Riabushkin, Borisov-Musatov.
Well versed in the culture of the Stone Age and in old Russian art, Roerich brought to the attention of his contemporaries the keen perception of beauty evinced, in his belief, by the ancients. “Place a stone implement beside any beautiful thing — it will not impair the general impression. It will lend the picture a note of calm and dignity,” he said. Roerich was of the opinion that the works of art of the Stone Age have high artistic value. He had a special admiration for the art of Russia. “When you look at the decorative painting of ancient times, the old tiles or ornaments, you begin to think: how beautiful was the life of long ago, how strong the people who lived it!” The trip Roerich made in 1903—1904 to the old Russian towns of Vladimir, Uglich, Novgorod, Pskov, Suzdal and others enriched his knowledge of the country’s ancient culture. He produced more than eighty studies depicting old Russian cathedrals, towers and city walls, a magnificent series glorifying the beauty and majesty of the country’s ancient architecture.
Roerich knew and loved the ancient culture of different countries and epochs — Egypt, India, Western Europe of the Middle Ages, the Scandinavian countries. He called in his articles for the preservation of the relics and monuments of the past of which each nation is justly proud.
Like many other early twentieth century artists, Roerich also worked in the field of monumental and decorative painting. In 1909 he did several large decorative panels. One of them, Bayan, is done in an exquisite colour scheme: the stately figure of the elder bending over his psaltery is given against a background of pale lilac walls and green hills. His pale pink clothes embroidered with patterns of gold seem to have captured the rays of the setting sun.
The landscape in Roerich’s works is assigned an important role: its treatment by the artist betrays his pantheistic world outlook. Nature, in his mind, is inseparably linked with human activities. In his picture Battle in the Heavens (1912) the huge clouds are moving across the sky as though locked in combat, the vague shapes of fantastic creatures can be imagined in their forms. Equally expressive in Roerich’s canvases are his hills, trees, and rocks.
Much of his creative endeavour was given to the theatre. One of his first essays in this field was the design of the settings for Borodin’s opera Prince Igor (staged by Diaghilev in Paris). The Russian shows in Paris were tremendously successful. The French press wrote with enthusiasm of these productions where the decor was an integral part of the spectacle. We know of the success achieved by Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, designed by A. Benois, of Scheherazade by N. Rimsky-Korsakov with settings and costumes by L. Bakst, and of other ballets in which the young choreographer M. Fokin displayed his vivid talents and imagination. The opera Prince Igor was not staged in full; Parisians were shown only “The Camp of the Polovtsi” scene with stage settings by Roerich. The decor was designed in a laconic vein — only the yurts and the lonely steppe stretching beyond them — but what a wealth of meaning they conveyed! The artist’s intent was to show the endless expanses of unsettled land whence the nomads had come. The orange-red of the decor was in tune with the temperamental rhythm of the dance of the Polovtsi.
1910 saw the beginning of Roerich’s collaboration with Igor Stravinsky on the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, staged in Paris in 1913. “In Le Sacre du Printemps,” wrote the composer, “I wanted to express the radiant resurrection of nature, its rebirth to a new life, a resurrection complete and spontaneous. . .” In a sketch for Act I, which presented the rites and dances of the ancients, Roerich depicted the vernal flowering of the far-flung land. The sketch was done in light blue and green tones. The white blotches of the clothes, decorated with yellow, green and red patterns, stand out against the green of the hills and all is interspersed with the many-coloured women’s raiments.
The ballets specially created by Diaghilev for the “Russian seasons” in Paris were instrumental in asserting the role of the stage designer as a co-author of the production. The artists responsible for the decor attained a renown as widespread as those of the composers, choreographers and actors involved. These productions achieved a synthesis of music, painting and artistic performance. Men of art had long striven to create a harmonious stage production in which the decor would convey, even deepen the spectacle’s message. Diaghilev’s ballets, implementing these aspirations as they did, were of major significance not only for the Russian theatre, but the theatre of Western Europe as well.
In 1912 Roerich completed the decor for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt. Especially expressive is the sketch for the scene in the house of Solveig, based on a combination of golden-yellow, brown and blue tones which impart softness and warmth to the colour scheme.
1912 was for the artist a specially productive year, during which he worked simultaneously on designs for stage settings to the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt and Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. The first two achieved recognition, whereas Tristan and Isolde never even saw the footlights. Roerich did many sketches of costumes and settings for three acts of the opera. Like Wagner, who used the leitmotif as the main means of characterization, Roerich chose some definite colour scheme as the leitmotif of each of his settings. Every one of the composer’s characters is the bearer of a definite idea applicable to humanity as a whole. Roerich’s settings are in full accord with Wagner’s music. Selecting a specific colour scheme for the whole opera, Roerich in each separate act emphasizes the sonority of some of the tones, totally ignoring all the others. Thus, in Act I the dominant colours are red, yellow and blue. These hues create an emotion-laden gamut which serves to underline the heroes’ mood, the mutual attraction that has sprung up between them.
During World War I Roerich’s art tended to idealize the way of life and religion of olden times. Not quite cognizant of the social aspect of events, Roerich nonetheless could not remain indifferent to the sufferings of the people. The contradictory character of his world outlook becomes glaringly obvious when we compare his paintings with his writings of that period. In one of his articles, A Word in Parting, the artist speaks of the people’s right to fight for their freedom. Roerich may have been influenced by his conversations with Maxim Gorky, with whom he met frequently at the time in literary circles. In his paintings of that period, however, the artist enunciated the patriarchal ideal: the saints in his canvases give their blessing to the “unknown seafarers” or help the peasants in their daily chores.
In 1915 the Russian public celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roerich’s creative endeavour. Having devoted a quarter of a century to art and literary work, Roerich had by that time achieved the summit of craftsmanship and renown. The artist’s canvases were part of many collections both in Russia and abroad. They were bought by the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the RUSSIAN MUSEUM and the Academy of Arts in Petrograd, the LuxembourgMuseum in Paris and the NationalMuseum in Rome. Art lovers could view Roerich’s pictures both in Russia and at exhibitions held in Venice, Paris, London, Brussels, Rome and Malmo. 1914 saw the publication of a collection of his essays on art, and of another including legends and fairy-tales. Two years later a magnificently illustrated volume of articles dealing with Roerich’s oeuvre was issued: the contributors were outstanding art critics of the time.
In 1916 the artist fell seriously ill and left with his family for Finland where he underwent a long course of treatment. When the revolution broke, Roerich found himself cut off from Russia. Desirous of returning to Petrograd, he eagerly awaited news from the homeland. Quite unexpectedly he received an invitation from Sweden, requesting him to take charge of a number of paintings by Russian artists which had been left behind in Stockholm after the exhibition of 1914. The offer was accepted, and Roerich spent several years living and working in Swedish cities, then in the United States. In 1923 the RoerichMuseum was founded in New York.
In the twenties Roerich organized two expeditions, one into the countries of Central Asia, the other to India. These took him to the Himalayas, the Pamirs, Mongolia, Tibet. He discovered some ancient manuscripts containing legends and tales which provided him with abundant material for the study of the culture of these lands.
From that time on the Himalayas became his dominant motif. He paints the mountains at dawn and at sunset, enveloped in mist or vividly lighted by the sun, capturing their unique beauty. A contemporary of his remarked: “His mountain peaks tower over the earth like the greatest of the world’s thinkers.” Roerich sees the supreme joy of life, its most precious gift in a communion with nature and with art. This concept was implemented in his picture Krishna where the splendid deity is depicted enraptured by the sounds of music amidst majestic, fairy-tale-like scenery.
Roerich’s life in India was not only the life of an artist, but of a scholar as well. He initiated the foundation of the Urusvati Institution of Research at Kulu, whose prime objective was the study of the history of India, and published a number of books and articles on various problems of art.
Despite the long years he spent outside Russia, Roerich remained a steadfast patriot. He used to say that all his creative activities were meant to consolidate the high repute of Russian art. His letters from India, his diaries with recollections of Russia bear witness to the fact that the ties which bound him to the Motherland were never broken. “If a man loves his native land,” Roerich said, “he will do his utmost to bring into play all his achievements, no matter what corner of the globe he may find himself in.”
During the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941—45 the artist wrote with anguish of the sufferings of the Russian people, yet his belief in their inevitable victory never wavered. He turned to Russia’s distant past, to the images of her warriors and epic heroes, and in his painting once again took up themes inspired by Russian history. One such canvas is Prince Igor’s Campaign (1941). The sulhouettes of the warriors are sparingly delineated against the background of a bright sky. The contrast between the blues and the yellows serves to enhance the mood of anxiety which the canvas evokes.
In his last years Roerich centred his attention on the decorative aspect of his works. This is manifested, pre-eminently, by the artist’s recourse to contrasting colour combinations.
The outstanding men of India held Roerich in high esteem both as an artist and as a scholar. His house in Kulu was visited by Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other well-known political leaders, by artists and by scientists. Roerich’s canvases today grace the collections in many countries all over the world; his books, published in England, the United States and India, are likewise widely known.
Roerich died in 1947. The site of his cremation at Kulu is marked by a stone with an inscription commemorating him as a great Russian friend of India.
Recollecting his first encounter with Rabindranath Tagore, Roerich once said that he particularly prized in Tagore “the thinker incessantly going round the world with an imperative appeal for beauty”. This was in full accord with Roerich’s own beliefs; the artist remained loyal to the ideals of enlightenment till the end of his days. “How deep must be the gratitude of mankind to those titans of thought who spend their heart’s blood in their truly selfless efforts to remind us of the eternal fundamentals of life,” he wrote shortly before his death.
Roerich’s own life is an example of just that kind of devotion in the service of art and humanism.