Nicholas Roerich, Mystic, Artist, Explorer
If there was one advantage of communism it is that it drove out from the lands where it became dominant some of their best minds and they enrich the non-communist world. The many outstanding Tibetan monks who are now promoting Buddhism in the west are doing so because they fled from Mao’s oppression. One of but many great minds that fled Lenin’s tyranny was the great painter and mystic Nicholas Roerich. Although world famous in the 1920s and 30s he then faded into obscurity and was pretty much forgotten until 2013 when one of his paintings sold in auction for £7,881,250, the highest price ever paid for a painting by as a Russian artist. Who was this once forgotten man? Nicholas Roerich was born in St. Petersburg in 1874 matriculated simultaneously at St. Petersburg University and the Imperial Academy of Arts. He worked for the Imperial Academy for the Encouragement of the arts becoming its director between 1906 and 1917. Early on he became interested in Theosophy, Buddhism and the teachings of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna and in his paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and other artists of the so-called Bengal Revival. Like many intellectuals Roerich he enthusiastically welcomed the Russian Revolution but was dismayed when it was hijacked by Lenin and his Bolsheviks in October. Realizing what would be in store for the country under Lenin Roerich fled to Finland and later to the UK. While in London he was befriended by H. G. Wells and particularly by the pioneering Buddhist Christmas Humphreys who gave him a deeper understanding of the Dhamma than he had before. In 1920 the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition of Roerich’s paintings and invited him to the US where he toured and lectured widely. With his long white beard, gentle smile and strange mystical ideas he was the talk of the town. The exhibition later toured the country and eventually a museum of his paintings was established which still exists today, the Nicholas Roerich Museum at 319 West 107th Street, New York.
Between 1925 and 1929 Roerich led an expedition through remote and little-known places in Central Asia including Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet and the Hindukush and Altai Mountains. Although filled with hardship, adventure and considerable danger the journey was to have a profound influence in his thinking and his art. While eastern religious thought had been one of several of his interests it now became a major one and this reflected itself in his paintings. It was not Theravada but Tibetan Buddhism that fascinated him most and Tibetan monasteries, stupas, pilgrims crossing mountain passes and hermits meditating in Himalayan caves became dominant themes in his work. Roerich painted his mountains in deep blues and aquamarine capturing perfectly the snows of the Himalayan peaks and giving them a distinct and almost mystical quality. Often a tiny monastery or a lone lama in the landscape accurately reflects the vastness of these mountains. His painting of Milarepa, the famous 11th century Tibetan hermit poet done in 1925 is a good example of this. By contrast, in his most popular painting, The Buddha in Winter, golden brown and orange predominate as if to dispel any feeling of snowy coldness and to suggest the luminosity that the Buddha imparted to the world.
Given Roerich’s attraction to things Tibetan and his love of mountains he decided to move to India, eventually building a home for himself in Naggar, a small village on the slopes above the beautiful Himalayan Kulu Valley. There is continued his painting and writing and became familiar famous Indian personalities; Nehru and his daughter Indira, Rabindranath Tagore, and others.
In 1933, the Roosevelt administration sent Roerich and his Harvard-educated son George, who later became a noted scholar of Tibet, on a horticultural expedition to northern Central Asia on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. Roerich was selected to lead the expedition by H. A. Wallace, the Secretary for Agriculture who had become a follower of Roerich’s mystical teachings, with the expressed purpose of finding drought resistant grasses. This gave Roerich the opportunity to explore the Buddhist regions of Manchuria, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. Unfortunately, he spent more time trying to find Shambhala, the sacred city of Tibetan mythology and the whole project ended up being an embracement for Wallace and harmed his later political career. Like many mystics, Roerich could be naive and unrealistic, even foolish.
Roerich died in 1947, perhaps fortuitously, because it saved him seeing his beloved Tibet invaded by the Chinese communists and its culture destroyed just two years later. He left behind a legacy in literature also in astronomy – a minor planet is named after him – but mainly in art – his paintings hang in museums from Latvia to Trivandrum to New York. His mystical blending of Buddhism, Theosophy and Orthodox Christian spirituality, never attracted more than a few followers and are largely forgotten today.