Blake Gopnik traced the rise and fall of Nikolai Roerich’s artistic career in the Washington Post last weekend. He starts with the now dimished Roerich Museum on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and works his way back to the grand expeditions and finally to Roerich’s recent resurrection on the art market which has been led by Russian buyers.
Eighty years ago, however, this man whom no one’s heard of was one of the most famous artists in the country. He rated a purpose-built, 29-story skyscraper, with whole floors for his museum, and a Roerich institute and lodgings for disciples.
“Nicholas Roerich is an international figure. Not only is he a painter, but a scientist, a writer, poet and an archaeologist as well. . . . Beauty, which is the unifier of all nations, is the warp and woof of his paintings, too.” That was how things stood on Sept. 7, 1930, when Ada Rainey, this newspaper’s art critic, wrote about the 55-year-old Russian emigre. She was reviewing a show of more than 1,000 of Roerich’s paintings, on display in the newly opened Roerich tower. That same day, Rainey gave rather less space to another interesting new museum. It was called the Museum of Modern Art.
Of course, Roerich had more than a little do to with the fall of his reputation. He wound up alienating or embarrassing his most prominent supporters. Some of them, like Henry A. Wallace, had already diminished their own reputations. Roerich, who first came to prominence in Paris around the turn of the century, was now a full-blown mystic and guru:
Louis Horch, a major player in foreign exchange, had funded Roerich’s skyscraper, as well as an earlier Asian expedition during which Roerich claimed to discover proof that Christ had preached in India. By June 1935, Horch decided that his relationship with Roerich had been embarrassing and ludicrous, broke off contact, sued his former guru for $200,000 dollars in what he said were outstanding loans, took over the skyscraper and its art and evicted Roerich’s disciples.
By the time Roerich’s American reputation took its worst body blows, the painter was safely ensconced in a compound in the Kullu Valley in far northern India. When Roerich died there Jawaharlal Nehru gave the eulogy, speaking of how the artist had “touched and lighted up so many aspects of human endeavor.” The house is now a flourishing museum.
If you’re interested in Roerich–and you should be–read the entire piece by Gopnik. It offers a good starting place for a painter who seems ripe for reclamation as we begin to form a global culture.
Nicholas Roerich’s Different Strokes (Washington Post)