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The Three Magi by Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich

The Three Magi

The Town. Variant. Scenery sketch for N.Evreinov drama “The Three Magi”. 1907
Город. Вариант. Набросок декорации к мистерии Н.Евреинова «Три волхва»
Gouache, ink on paper mounted on cardboard. 28.5 x 34 cm.
E.M.Velichko collection, Moscow

Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 9, 1874, the first-born son of lawyer and notary, Konstantin Roerich and his wife Maria. He was raised in the comfortable environment of an upper middle-class Russian family with its advantages of contact with the writers, artists, and scientists who often came to visit the Roerichs. At an early age he showed a curiosity and talent for a variety of activities. When he was nine, a noted archeologist came to conduct explorations in the region and took young Roerich on his excavations of the local tumuli. The adventure of unveiling the mysteries of forgotten eras with his own hands sparked an interest in archeology that would last his lifetime. Through other contacts he developed interests in collecting prehistoric artifacts, coins, and minerals, and built his own arboretum for the study of plants and trees. While still quite young, Roerich showed a particular aptitude for drawing, and by the time he reached the age of sixteen he began to think about entering the Academy of Art and pursuing a career as an artist. His father did not consider painting to be a fit vocation for a responsible member of society, however, and insisted that his son follow his own steps in the study of law. A compromise was reached, and in the fall of 1893 Nicholas enrolled simultaneously in the Academy of Art and at St. Petersburg University.
In 1895 Roerich met the prominent writer, critic, and historian, Vladimir Stasov. Through him he was introduced to many of the composers and artists of the time — Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and the basso Fyodor Chaliapin. At concerts at the Court Conservatory he heard the works of Glazunov, Liadov, Arensky, Wagner, Scriabin, and Prokofiev for the first time, and an avid enthusiasm for music was developed. Wagner in particular appealed to him, and later, during his career as a theater designer, he created designs for most of that composer’s operas. Moreover, musical terms and analogies can appropriately be applied to Roerich’s painting. He frequently related music to the use of color and color harmonies, and applied this sense to his designs for opera. As Nina Selivanova wrote in her book, The World of Roerich: “The original force of Roerich’s work consists in a masterly and marked symmetry and a definite rhythm, like the melody of an epic song.”
The late 1890’s saw a blossoming in Russian arts, particularly in St. Petersburg, where the avant-garde was forming groups and alliances, led by the young Sergei Diaghilev,    who was a year or two ahead of Roerich at law school and was among the first to appreciate his talents as a painter and student of the Russian past.
One of Diaghilev’s first achievements was the founding, with Princess Maria Tenisheva and others, of the magazine The World of Art. This magazine enjoyed a relatively short life but had an important influence in Russian art circles. The magazine declared itself the enemy of the academicians, the sentimentalists, and the realists. It introduced to its readership, which was made up mostly of the intelligentsia, the vital elements of Russian artistic circles, European post-impressionism, and the modernist movement. Roerich contributed to it and sat on its editorial board. Other Russian painters involved were Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, who later became Roerich’s co-workers in the early days of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
After finishing his university thesis, Roerich planned to set off for a year in Europe to visit the museums, exhibitions, studios, and salons of Paris and Berlin. Just before leaving he met Helena, daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov and niece of the composer Mussorgsky. There seems to have been an immediate mutual attraction, and they were soon engaged to be married. On his return from Europe their marriage took place.
Helena Roerich was an unusually gifted woman, a talented pianist, and author of many books, including The Foundations of Buddhism and a Russian translation of Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. Her collected Letters, in two volumes, are an example of the wisdom, spiritual insight, and simple advice she shared with a multitude of correspondents — friends, foes, and co-workers alike.
Later, in New York, Nicholas and Helena Roerich founded the Agni Yoga Society, which espoused a living ethic encompassing and synthesizing the philosophies and religious teachings of all ages.
Prompted by the need to provide some income for his new household, Roerich applied for and won the position of Secretary of the School of the Society for the Encouragement of Art, later becoming its head, the first of many positions that Roerich would occupy as a teacher and spokesman for the arts.
Roerich determined to overhaul the Society and rescue it from the academic mediocrity it had foundered in for many years. He instituted a system of training in art that seems revolutionary even by today’s standards: to teach all the arts — painting, music, singing, dance, theater, and the so-called “industrial arts”, such as ceramics, painting on porcelain, pottery, and mechanical drawing — under one roof, and to give his faculty free rein to design their own curriculum.
The cross-fertilization of the arts that Roerich promoted was evidence of his inclination to harmonize, bring together, and find correspondences between apparent conflicts or opposites in all areas of life. This was a hallmark of his thinking, and one sees it demonstrated in all the disciplines he explored. He constantly sought to break down compartmentalization, and, indeed, even in his own art he defied categorization and created a universe uniquely personal. In his writings on ethics also, it can be seen that he constantly sought to connect ethical problems with scientific knowledge of the surrounding world.
It was Roerich’s gift that these “connections” appeared so natural to him and presented themselves in all life’s manifestations. And it was this talent for synthesis, which he admired in others and encouraged in the young, that enabled him to correlate the subjective with the objective, the philosophical with the scientific, Eastern wisdom with Western knowledge, and to build bridges of understanding between such apparent contradictions. He reminded us that these contradictions were often the result of man’s ignorance, and that an expanding consciousness, which each individual was duty-bound to pursue, would lead to eventual recognition of the illusoriness, or relativity, of things. As Garabed Paelian affirms in his book Nicholas Roerich: Roerich “…learned things ignored by other men; perceived relations between seemingly isolated phenomena, and unconsciously felt the presence of an unknown treasure.” Perhaps it is this “unknown treasure” that in Roerich’s paintings speaks to the viewer who is attuned to that underlying meaning, and further explains the transcendental feelings that some experience through his canvases.
In 1902, the Roerichs celebrated the birth of their first son, George, and in the summers of 1903 and 1904, they set off on an extended tour of forty cities throughout Russia. Roerich’s purpose was to contrast the styles and historical context of Russian architecture. The voyage was one of discovery, for wherever they went he was able to locate the remnants of Russia’s past — ancient monuments, churches, city walls, and castles. He found that these had, in many instances, been neglected for centuries. As an archeologist and art historian he was aware of what an important key they were to Russia’s cultural history. He determined to draw attention to the situation and somehow arrange to have them protected and preserved, and with this goal in mind painted a series of seventy-five works depicting the structures. The experience of this journey had a lasting effect, for on his return in 1904, Roerich promulgated the plan that he hoped would create protection everywhere for such cultural treasures, a plan consummated thirty-one years later in the Roerich Pact. This kind of thinking was not common in those days, and anticipated the importance that, today, most countries of the world place upon preservation of their cultural heritage.
In 1904 Roerich painted the first of his paintings on religious themes. These mostly dealt with Russian saints and legends, and included Message to Tiron, Fiery Furnace, and The Last Angel, subjects that he returned to with numerous variants in later years. The Treasure of the Angels was described by one writer: “A host of angels in white garments stand silently row after row guarding a mysterious treasure with which are bound up the destinies of the world. It is a blue black stone with an image of the crucifix cut into it, glowing with emerald hues.” The angels are an early depiction of the hierarchical Masters that peopled the heart of Roerich’s belief in a Great Brotherhood, watching over and guiding humanity in its eternal journey of evolution. The “stone” pictured by Roerich is the representation of an image that recurs in different forms in his paintings and throughout his writings. The word “treasure” figures prominently in the titles of many of Roerich’s paintings, as, for instance, in The Treasure of the Mountain and Hidden Treasure. It is clearly not material wealth that he refers to, but rather the spiritual treasures that lie buried, yet available to those with the will to unearth them.
Meanwhile Roerich’s search for archeological treasures continued. The Stone Age particularly intrigued him, and he amassed a large collection of artifacts from that era. His paintings frequently reflected this interest, as in Three Glaives in which the subject matter is archeological in nature, and relates to an ancient legend. Roerich wrote about the unusual similarity of Stone Age techniques and methods of ornamentation in far-separated regions of the globe. In comparing these correspondences, he came to instructive conclusions as to the commonality of human expression and creativity.



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