Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich
(1874 - 1947)
Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich was born to an upper middle class family in 1874 at St. Petersburg. His early years were spent at the family's country estate where he developed a keen eye for observing landscapes. At the Imperial Academy of Arts, he came under the tutelage of a landscape painter, A.I. Kuinji who was instrumental in shaping him as an artist. Though he studied law and art but his interests were wide-ranging and included ethics, religion, culture and spiritualism.
After University, Roerich spent time in Europe where he was inspired by the works of Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas and muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. On his return to Russia he was commissioned to paint murals and mosaics for several churches. The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev was able to spot his creativity and introduced him to designing theatre costumes and sets. He worked as a set designer for some well-known productions of Wagner and Stravinsky. On an invitation from the Chicago Art Institute, he moved to USA. In 1921, to promote culture and art, he helped set up an international society for artists, Cor Ardens (Flaming Heart) in Chicago followed up by Corona Mundi (Crown of the World), an international art centre to foster a mutual understanding among all people through the language of art. In recognition of his contributions, the Roerich Museum was set up in New York in 1923.
All along he had been increasingly drawn towards Oriental philosophy and religion, an interest promoted in no less measure by his wife Helena. In 1923 he was on an Indian voyage visiting Sarnath, Gaya, Varanasi and eventually Darjeeling where the physical and spiritual grandeur of the mighty Himalayas left him craving for more such experiences. In 1925 he embarked on an expedition to uncharted territories of Chinese Turkistan, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet. The experiences of his travels were translated onto canvas, which he painted with amazing vigour and energy. After this expedition, he settled in Kullu valley at Naggar. He set up the headquarters of the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute with the objective of promoting botanical and ethnological-linguistic studies, and an exploration of archaeological sites.
Roerich developed his own philosophy guided by the elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Russian Orthodoxy, pantheism and theosophy. A basic theme that runs through his paintings is "Shambhala". Shambhala, a mythical kingdom according to Tibetan legend is protected by a powerful energy. In times to come, a ruler of Shambhala shall come as savior and cleanse the world of its sins. The path to Shambala is the path to enlightenment.
His forte was tempera. The colours that were made personally for him from mineral rocks have lent a vibrancy and warmth to the mountain landscapes. He has used dazzling white, brilliant orange, vivid mauve, pastel pink, emerald green, red brown hues and various shades of blue to paint mountains not just to convey their physical splendour but as a symbolist to unravel the mountain's soul. The minute size in depiction of saints and hermits in contrast to the vastness of the mountains is symbolic of man's tiny role in this vast cosmos.
The most outstanding achievement of Roerich was the Roerich Pact, a treaty for the protection of cultural treasures during the time of peace and war that was signed in 1935 by 22 nations including the USA. Several countries signed later, including India in 1948. It can definitely be called a culmination to his lifelong efforts to promote and protect culture.