“A quarter of a century has passed [since World War I], exactly a quarter, just one generation, and the virus of the same madness has broken out. This epidemic started in the same inhuman way. Again, bombs are being dropped on civilians. Again, ships carrying peaceful travellers are being destroyed. Schools are shattered and children’s bodies torn apart.” -Nicholas Roerich. 

It is an epiphany that reverberates within, isn’t it? Now, that! is the impact Nicholas Roerich brought with him through his paintings. Nicholas Roerich was an expedition lover since an early age, his family arrived in India at Kullu in the year 1923. It was during these expeditions, the sight of the Himalayas, the monks and the ascetics further instilled in him the introspective nature that life withholds. Much of it is like drawing analogies with the young Prince Siddharta on a self-initiation route finding complexities of life. It is journey in the search for truth, amidst the pursuit of enlightenment and attainment of Buddha. To get to know more about the noble pacifist, we dive into his world that connects us to him, through his canvas.

Introducing Nicholas Roerich Museum-New York

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nicholas’s life is an intellectual one. It is his life alone which distinguishes him from others. Spellbound by the mysticism and spiritual realms of life and beyond, Nicholas Roerich is an admired painter. 

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Pensive portrait of Nicholas Roerich (Credit:https://roerich.org/museum-archive-photographs.php )

To experience catharsis through art, we unravel the townhouse on the corner of the street in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A big space with an asymmetrical façade welcomes the visitors with the intrigue of a three-storied thematic experience. The angularity of the structure is further enhanced in the interiors where the tranquil art pieces adorn the staircases and stairwells of the building. The tall-standing townhouse is inconspicuous of the existing structures on Manhattan Street yet blends in like the others. Built-in the traditional brownstone, it is an Art-Deco townhouse with an emphasis on the horizontal appearance of the building with a rounded exterior finish. The curvy edges weave in an elegant necklace of ribbon windows continuing around. The windows hold glass blocks giving ample illumination to the interiors. 

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The Manhattan townhouse, the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York_https://www.roerich.org/
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Pillars in the mansion and gallery housing famous paintings, sculptures and mosaic panels_https://www.instagram.com/roerichmuseumnyc

The space opens to a palatial reception with allegorical representations in stucco work, giving a guided hovering to the visitors. All in white! Each of the classic cornices edges out and forms alliances with the framed canvas, enriching the wall. The walls exude minimal serenity which gets accentuated through Nicholas Roerich’s natural colour pallet. Slumbering avenues of a well-painted canvas give an urge to delve into the concept of ’Shunaya’ (zero, nothingness). The depths of ‘null’ and stillness are fathomed through the cerulean strokes of the art pieces. The character of the building is in the process of weaving meditative stories all along. It amplifies the sound of Zen, giving a bustling pace to the settling whirlpools of the frantic mind.  

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A cabinet showing Roerich’s initial works while he was a student. (https://www.instagram.com/roerichmuseumnyc
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Walls of the townhouse adorning Nicholas Roerich’s famous Himalayan Paintings and the spacious hall with Buddhist sculptures as display. (https://www.instagram.com/roerichmuseumnyc).

The artworks bring the soft breezes of the Himalayan ranges, the worldly wisdom of the sages and the meditative energies of Buddhist monks onto each floor. Snowcapped mountains disappear in white clouds, symbolic of the union of the body and the inner soul, vanishing into solitude. The Nicholas Roerich Art Gallery is a repository of a well-travelled monk in the robe of an artist. With every turn into the townhouse, climbing every staircase, one is introduced to personal memorabilia like corner cabinets, studies, chinoiserie and old chimney blowing in a whiff of the painter’s essence. A place of definite visual treat of sculptural pieces from the Taoist culture, bronze pieces of Buddha, Green Tara. The exhibition emerges deeper in time, with various archival records, pictures, and mementoes displayed alongside the artist’s works.  

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The Himalayan range series, 1924 Tempera on canvas size 30.4X 40.3 cm_https://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/2-sacred-himalayas-nicholas-roerich.jpg .
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Buddha the Conqueror from the series Banners of the East, 1925_https://www.roerich.org/museum-paintings-catalogue.php
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To Kailash, Lahul by Nicholas Roerich_https://www.roerich.org/museum-paintings-catalogue.php

Roerich’s Indian Connection

Away in the pristine Himalayan landscape in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh; precisely amongst the inspiration which made Nicholas Roerich what he is, lies a vernacular housing set-up. Nicholas Roerich Art gallery took birth in the same place where, Roerich established Urusvati (Sanskrit for Star of the morning) Himalayan Research Institute in 1928. It is a traditional Kullu house with wood fencing. The structure appears as a heavenly abode in white. The building gives a peculiar contrast to the lush green landscape around it. The Nicholas Roerich Art Gallery houses the remnants of the artists’ invasive thoughts all collected into one. It is an experiential centre, embalming one into every nook and corner. Each of the paintings displayed is always fine in the contours of mountains, brooks and hills. The framed art stationed everywhere, invites a lot more stillness than it carries within the art itself. The azure stroke on the gesso soothes the restless mind. The area expanse is small and cosy, with the warm sun rays that bring in a contemplative magic to it. It summons a glance at the windows and breathe in the light of an introspective human spirit through the eyes of a visionary artist. A living monastery with cosmic themes invoking a sense of food for the soul. 

It was here, that Roerich breathed his last on Dec 13, 1947.His body was cremated facing the slope of the mountains. Those mountains which he loved dearly and portrayed in around 7000 of his works.

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Nicholas Roerich Art gallery in Kullu, Naggar Himachal Pradesh India. and
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A typical exmplified Kullu house wooden entry staircase of the memorial_https://footloosedev.com/nicholas-roerich-art-gallery/

Glimpse of a Meditative Museum  

Seeing a shift in the museum and the museology preamble is the inclusion of meditative museums. Museums create spaces for self-reflection with a deeper connection with what is displayed. They work on reducing distractions through minimal design, giving neutral colours to finish the ambience, with maximizing natural light sourcing through windows. It promotes slow and guided walkthroughs like stepping into an event horizon in the divinity of the celestial world. Often such museums encourage feeble visitor movement. These places aim at transforming art appreciation as a therapeutic means, by developing a cohort of self-expression and artistic expression.

Nicholas Roerich- The relevant figure of peace and art

The Nicholas Roerich Art Gallery is a meditative museum that existed before the classification of any such museum. The pieces of art rooted in still thoughts stand relevant today. It is a stern confirmation of why Nicholas Roerich is the idol we need today, or maybe we always had. Today, in a time of a dynamic uproar of emotions within society, in between the commotion of assertiveness of ideologies, which keeps the mind irked, the paintings by Roerich give an astounding element of search within. A reiteration: that it is the beam of hope and shroud of peace that should continue to engulf the world for balance. The space provides a platform for a rendezvous with the inner self, asking questions, creating a dialogue, and perhaps the fulfillment of Roerich’s motive of a placid habitat of individuals and a commune environment to bestow upon future generations.

Madonna Oriflamma , 1932, tempera on Canvas. The painting shows the Banner of Peace (3 red dots encircled around together) The Roerich Pact’s emblem is a peace flag. This is the first international convention devoted to the preservation of artistic, scientific, and historical institutions and monuments_https://www.roerichs.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Madonna-Oriflamma.1932-kopiya.jpg

An excerpt of his diary dated September 3,1939 says, Once more, we will turn to art to remind us that destruction is unacceptable, once more we will hope that at least now humanity will understand what true values are, and what is the purpose of human evolution”.

References:

 Nicholas Roerich Museum New York (2023). War Again. [online]. Available at: https://www.roerich.org/ [Accessed 22 September 2023].

 

Author

An engineer turned art and heritage conservator, Dharini is into scholarly work for conservation science . Currently , she finds herself taking initial steps for constructing concrete and colossal ideas in words for architecture and design community. Her objective is to make a space of confluence for art , architecture and science through effective communication and storytelling.