Nicholas Roerich was born into a well-heeled family in Tsarist Russia and managed to spend his life traveling and working and campaigning for good without ever seriously pissing anybody off; considering his background and affiliations, that was no mean feat, but if ever an artist’s head and heart were in the skies, this is the guy. Despite leaving behind an impressive number of excellent paintings, he was most proud of the work he did on behalf of the world’s art and architecture against the ravages of war. Today there are formal agreements among nations regarding the protection and disposition of the world’s great art, agreements that began with the so-called Roerich pact of 1935 to which nations of the Pan-American Union, including the USA, were signatories. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize which is somewhat ironic in that his greatest work lay in the protection of property and treasures instead of people, but that is an unfair judgment on the committee. Much of the process of working toward peace is promoting the recognition of the other side as an actual culture instead of just an enemy, and nothing leads us to an understanding and sympathy with a culture more quickly than a familiarity with its art. Or so he hoped.
Roerich travelled widely throughout his life, and he had a deep fondness for the Asian artistic tradition. This influence is evident in many of his paintings, but seems fresh and unique since techniques of, say, Chinese draftsmanship and landscape are filtered through Roerich’s training as an architect. This leaves us with gauzy, wide vistas broken by the march of practical polygons, habitats of monks and mountain dwellers who dare the peaks in structures of primitive simplicity which somehow manage to endure forever against the harshest climate on earth.
His work is also very illustrative. Some of his paintings might easily have come from the pages of a graphic novel, and I wonder how many of the early comics artists might have been influenced by his style.
His life is one of incredible achievement and adventure. He was there for the Bolshevik Revolution and tried to help the emergent nation come up with a coherent policy on art in his never-ending quest for art preservation. He managed to scuttle free of the Leninist regime which he despised, and eventually made his way to the west where he took everyone and everything by storm. Heavily into Blavatsky’s Theosophy and occultism, he looked like a fierce wizard striding across North America. He made it at last to India and eventually died in the Punjab at the age of seventy-three.
Chances are pretty good most Americans have never heard of him, yet he has his own museum in New York City. It’s just the latest one, by the way. There are others. There are also Roerich societies around the world. Like Ferris Bueller he seemed to be known and respected by everyone, and like Bueller he somehow managed to be in on everything everywhere. He was an architect, a lawyer, a painter, a set designer, a philosopher, a short story writer, a poet, and a magician.
The kids think he’s a cool dude.