Searching for Shambhala

By McCannon, John | Russian Life, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Searching for Shambhala


McCannon, John, Russian Life


The Mystical Art and Epic Journeys of Nikolai Roerich

When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made his historic space flight in April 1961, he became the first human being ever to gaze upon the fullness of the planet Earth from above. Asked to describe the sight, Gagarin struggled to find just the right words. Finally, he said, the view of Earth from space "reminds me of a painting by Nikolai Roerich." Gagarin's analogy was particularly apt, because Roerich dedicated much of his art and life to the cosmic, in every sense of the word.

Nikolai Roerich was born on October 9 [September 27, old style], 1874, into the family of a prominent St. Petersburg notary. A gifted student, the young Roerich developed not only an early taste for painting, music, and theater, but also a lifelong interest in archaeology and folklore, as well as a deep love of nature, cultivated during regular visits to the family estate, Isvara, approximately 60 miles outside St. Petersburg. Indeed, versatility became one of the hallmarks of Roerich's career. Before his long and active life came to an end in 1947, Roerich painted or sketched more than 7,000 works; designed sets and costumes for over a dozen plays, operas, and ballets; explored Tibet, Central Asia, and the Himalayas; received two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize; and, finally, attracted both controversy and admiration by founding, with his wife Helena, a popular mystical tradition known as Agni Yoga.

After completing secondary school in 1893, Roerich took on a double educational burden. His parents, wishing him to pursue a legal or civil service career, insisted that he study law at the University of St. Petersburg. Roerich himself yearned to enroll in the Imperial Academy of Arts, and solved the dilemma by agreeing to take courses at both institutions. He earned his law degree in 1898, but had already fulfilled his real dream by graduating from the Academy with the title of "artist" in the fall of 1897. While at the Academy, Roerich studied with Arkhip Kuindzhi, the landscapist famous for The Birch Grove (1879-1882) and Night on the Dnieper (1880-1882). Roerich remained devoted to Kuindzhi until the latter's death in 1910. Under his teacher's guidance Roerich completed his graduation piece, The Messenger (1897). This was Roerich's first major work; it was purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, praised by Leo Tolstoy, and noticed by the royal family.

Over the next few years, the journeyman artist plunged himself into a whirlwind of activity At the Academy, Roerich's classmates had teased him for his diligence: "we sit around at home before class, drinking tea and gabbing with one another, but you always seem to be working, thinking somehow." During the rest of what fellow artist Igor Grabar -- director of the Tretyakov Gallery and, under the Soviets, head of the Academy of Sciences's Institute of Art History - called his "hectic, vital life," Roerich never slackened the pace of this impressive work ethic. In addition to painting, he penned articles and essays for some of Russia's most prestigious artistic and literary journals. He also began a long affiliation with the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, a progressive body that provided artistic education to men and women of all social classes. Over time, Roerich became director of the Society's school. His most famous student there was Marc Chagall, who, as an emigre, later became intern ationally renowned for his whimsical fantasies and his scenes of Jewish life in Russia.

During the first decade of the new century, Roerich made two long trips to Western Europe -- one to Paris, another to Italy and Switzerland -- to refine his painterly technique and acquaint himself with new trends in turn-of-the-century art. Archaeological and literary research on what he considered to be Asian sources of Russian culture sparked a growing interest in eastern religions and Indian philosophy. He also started a family.

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