Nicholas Roerich, original Russian Nikolay Konstantinovich Ryorikh, (Russian: Никола́й Константи́нович Ре́рих) also spelled Rerikh, (born October 9 [September 27, Old Style], 1874, —died December 13, 1947, Nagar, India) was a Russian painter, scenic designer, philosopher, peace activist and writer who is perhaps best known artistically for his work with Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and especially for his monumental historical sets.
One noteworthy example was his costume and stage design for the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s early Modernist landmark The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps).
Roerich was also a much revered mystic.
Roerich was a dedicated activist for the cause of preserving art and architecture during times of war. The ‘Roerich Pact’ was signed into law by the United States and most nations of the Pan-American Union during April 1935.
Called the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments or Roerich Pact it provides legal recognition that the defence of cultural objects is more important than the use or destruction of that culture for military purposes, and the protection of culture always has precedence over any military necessity.
Described by Mahatma Gandhi as “ a man with a big heart, deeply influenced by all that he observed". Nicholas was a peacemaker.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven”
Roerich’s paintings are beautiful, with intense lush jewel colours, and simple, but nearly always mystical, themes.
But he also had a fascination for the past and a great love of Nature in all its majesty. The overall impression one gets of Nicholas’s paintings is that he felt humbled by Nature, the immensity and the wonder of the creation as a whole.
Roerich’s work on set designs for opera and Ballets Russes productions, for example, arose out of the opportunity to create scenic evocations of the past, such as the 12th-century Russia of Polovtsian Dances (1909) from Aleksandr Borodin’s Prince Igor or the legendary Scandinavia of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1912).
When Diaghilev took an exhibition of Russian paintings to Paris in 1906, Roerich was represented by 16 works. Those works as well as thousands of other largely landscape paintings also evince Roerich’s intense feeling for the epic dimensions and mystery of nature.
As his spiritual interests grew his paintings became more other worldly with angels, vast skies filled with thunder beings, and portals to the spiritual world.
He also designed religious art for places of worship throughout Russia and Ukraine: most notably the Queen of Heaven fresco for the Church of the Holy Spirit which the patroness Maria Tenisheva built near her Talashkino estate; and the stained glass windows for the Datsan Gunzechoinei during 1913–1915.
Another of Roerich's passions was architecture. In 1903, Roerich together with his wife Helena visited forty ancient Russian cities, including Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal, Yuriev-Polsky, Smolensk, Vilna (a Lithuanian city, briefly part of Russian Empire), Izborsk, Pskov. In 1904, he visited Uglich, Kalyazin, Kashin, and Tver. During his travels, Roerich produced nearly 90 paintings of the sites he had visited.
Later many Russian churches were destroyed and these paintings remain the only documenting images of this heritage. Roerich became immersed in the grandeur and beauty of these ancient monuments, inspired by a spirituality and sense of reverence for the ‘other realm’ which was fast disappearing from Russia as a result of communism.
Roerich repeatedly pointed out the sad state of antique monuments and wrote several articles about the poor state of the churches. In the article “Silent Pogroms” (1911) Roerich wrote about the unskillful restoration of St. John the Forerunner Church at Yaroslavl: “Who would defend a beautiful antique from mad pogroms? It is tragic when our heritage dies. But it is more terrible when our heritage is disfigured, falsified and becomes just an imitation…”.
His acclaimed publication "Architectural Studies" (1904–1905) – the dozens of paintings he completed of fortresses, monasteries, churches, and other monuments during two long trips through Russia—- inspired his decades-long career as an activist on behalf of artistic and architectural preservation.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Roerich’s parents, Konstantin (a lawyer) and Maria (a notary), often entertained writers, artists, and scientists, and the stimulating environment sparked many of Roerich’s early interests.
In autumn 1893 he enrolled in both the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts to study drawing and St. Petersburg University to study law. At St. Petersburg University he met Diaghilev, who recognized his artistic talent.
Soon after completing his university thesis, Roerich met and married Helena Shaposhnikov. Helena was a very important influence on Nicholas’s subsequent life. It was through her that he developed an interest in mystic movements and other spiritual systems. Both Nicholas and Helena studied the Bhagavad Gita, the Rig veda and the work of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. They also studied Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism.
The influence of these mystical movements can be seen not only in his paintings but is also evident in his writing - the many short stories and poems Roerich wrote before and after the 1917 revolutions, including the Flowers of Morya cycle, begun during 1907 and completed 1921.
After the February Revolution of 1917 and the end of the czarist regime, Roerich, a political moderate who valued Russia's cultural heritage more than ideology and party politics, attempted to gain the attention of the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet on the need to form a coherent cultural policy and, most urgently, protect art and architecture from destruction and vandalism.
But Roerich became increasingly ill, probably as a result of having to deal with the politics of his ventures and he was forced to leave the capital and reside in Karelia, the district bordering Finland.
In 1915 Roerich and his family moved to Sortavala, Finland, so that he could recover from a bout with pneumonia. After the October Revolution and the acquisition of power of Lenin's Bolshevik Party, Roerich became increasingly discouraged about Russia's political future. During early 1918, he, Helena, and their two sons George and Sviatoslav emigrated to Finland.
Roerich's extreme hostility to the Bolshevik regime – governed largely by his revulsion at Lenin's ruthlessness and his fear that Bolshevism would result in the destruction of Russia's artistic and architectural heritage – is amply documented. He illustrated Leonid Andreyev's anti-communist polemic "S.O.S." and had a widely published pamphlet, "Violators of Art" (1918–1919). Roerich believed that "the triumph of Russian culture would only come about through a new appreciation of ancient myth and legend".
After some months in Finland and Scandinavia, the Roerichs relocated to London, arriving during mid-1919. By this time, they were totally involved with mysticism. Together they founded a school of mysticism - Agni Yoga - which they referred to also as "the system of living ethics”. Among the notable people Roerich befriended while in England were H. G. Wells, and Rabindranath Tagore (whose grand-niece Devika Rani would later marry Roerich's son Sviatoslav).
A successful exhibition of Nicholas’s paintings resulted in an invitation from a director at the Art Institute of Chicago. During the autumn of 1920, the Roerichs traveled to America by sea. The Roerichs remained in the United States from October 1920 until May 1923. A large exhibition of Roerich's art toured the country starting in New York in December 1920 and ending in San Francisco. Roerich befriended soprano Mary Garden of the Chicago Opera and received a commission to design a 1922 production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden for her.
During his time in the USA, Roerich spent some time in New Mexico which again added to his store of mystic and shamanistic knowledge.
From his time in London, Nicholas had wanted to go East. His time in America had provided him with the funds to do so and in the mid 1920s, Helena and Nicholas along with their son George and six friends – began the five-year-long 'Roerich Asian Expedition' that, in Roerich's own words: "started from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oryot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet" with a detour through Siberia to Moscow during 1926.
Roerich was regarded with some suspicion by all the authorities in those countries at the time, principally because he also wanted to revive the mystic and spiritual movements in those countries oppressed by political systems that had squashed the spirituality out of the country. He ‘attracted attention’ from the foreign services and intelligence agencies of the USSR, the United States, Great Britain, and Japan.
He called his ‘utopian project’ the Sacred Union of the East – and envisioned a spiritual utopia based largely on Buddhism that was essentially a highly spiritual cooperative commonwealth under the patronage of Bolshevik Russia. This utopia was to show humankind a blueprint of an ideal society.
Between the summer of 1927 and June 1928 the expedition was thought to be lost, since communication with them ceased for a year. They had been attacked in Tibet and only the "superiority of our firearms prevented bloodshed... In spite of our having Tibet passports, the expedition was forcibly stopped by Tibetan authorities." The expedition was detained by the government for five months, and forced to live in tents in sub-zero conditions and to subsist on meagre rations. Five men of the expedition died during this time.
During March 1928 they were allowed to leave Tibet, and trekked south to settle in India, where they initiated a research center, the Himalayan Research Institute.
During 1929 Nicholas Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the University of Paris. He received two more nominations during 1932 and 1935. His concern for peace resulted in his creation of the Pax Cultura, the "Red Cross" of art and culture. His work for this cause also resulted in the United States and the twenty other nations of the Pan-American Union signing the Roerich Pact on April 15, 1935 at the White House. The Roerich Pact is an early international instrument protecting cultural property.
During 1934–1935, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (then headed by Roerich admirer Henry A. Wallace) sponsored an expedition by Roerich and USDA scientists H. G. MacMillan and James F. Stephens to Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, and China. The expedition's purpose was to study plants and collect seeds. The expedition consisted of two parts. During 1934, they explored the Greater Khingan mountains and Bargan plateau in western Manchuria. During 1935, they explored parts of Inner Mongolia: the Gobi Desert, Ordos, and Helan Mountains. The expedition found almost 300 species of xerophytes, collected herbs, conducted archeological studies, and found antique manuscripts of great scientific importance.
Roerich was in India during the Second World War, where he painted Russian epic heroic and saintly themes, including: Alexander Nevsky, The Fight of Mstislav and Rededia and Boris and Gleb.
During 1942, Roerich received Jawaharlal Nehru at his house in Kullu and Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. Together they discussed the fate of the new world:
"We spoke about Indian-Russian cultural association”, – Roerich wrote, – “it is time to think about useful and creative cooperation ...”.
Roerich died on December 13, 1947.
The ideals that Nicholas and Helena espoused live on in the Roerich pact. Roerich first began to formulate his ideas about the protection of cultural monuments in 1899. Roerich stated that these great buildings and monuments are not only a key record of ancient cultures, but also part of our sacred past. The past should inform the present and sacred architecture and landscapes help to do that. Round about 1904–1905, Roerich came up with the idea of a special treaty for the protection of cultural monuments.
In 1914, Roerich appealed to the governments of Russia, the USA and France and presented his idea of an international agreement aimed at the protection of a country’s cultural heritage during armed conflicts. He created a poster “Enemy of Mankind” denouncing the barbaric destruction of cultural monuments. After this he worked tirelessly promoting the idea. G.G. Shklyaver, a doctor of international law and political sciences of Paris University prepared the first draft document of the Pact for him. Simultaneously Roerich proposed a distinctive sign to identify the objects that are in need of protection – the Banner of Peace.
In 1930, the text of this draft agreement was published in the press and distributed to governments, as well as scientific, artistic and educational institutions throughout the whole world. As a result, a number of committees supporting the Pact were established in many countries. The draft pact was approved by the Committee for Museum affairs at the League of Nations and also by the Committee of the Pan-American Union. Ultimately, the Pact was signed by 21 states in the Americas and was ratified by ten of them.
A few years after the Second World War, the Roerich Pact was instrumental in the creation of international law standards and public activity in the field of protection of cultural heritage. In 1949, at the fourth session of general UNESCO conference, a decision was accepted to begin work on international law regulation in the field of cultural heritage protection in case of armed conflict.
Over 140 years later, the ideas of the Roerich Pact, are still not implemented in international law, especially its principle relating to the absolute and unlimited preference of the preservation of cultural values over all ‘military necessity’.
Ruth Abrams Drayer (2005) - Nicholas And Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists And Peacemakers.
His paintings can be seen in several museums including
- the Roerich Department of the State Museum of Oriental Arts in Moscow;
- the Roerich Museum at the International Centre of the Roerichs in Moscow;
- the Russian State Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia;
- the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow;
- the Art Museum in Novosibirsk, Russia;
- the National Gallery for Foreign Art in Sofia, Bulgaria;
- the Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod Russia;
- the National Museum of Serbia ;
- the Roerich Hall Estate in Nagar village in Kullu Valley, India;
- the Sree Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram, India; and in various other art museums in India;
- The Latvian National Museum of Art.