Museum Review: The Roerich Museum

Posted on February 23, 2011

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Nicholas Roerich. Krishna: Spring in Kula. 1929.

To visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum, located in a beautiful brownstone on a quiet block of 109th St. between Broadway and Riverside Drive, is to be thrown headfirst into a world of painterly contradictions. Roerich, who was born in Russia in 1874 and died in India in 1947, with extended stays in France, Finland, America, and the Himalayas, was a man of many hats: painter, set designer, poet, critic, essayist, archaeologist, ethnographer, historian, teacher and peace activist were among his chief professions. He founded more schools, art institutions, and cultural-preservation societies in more places than can be reasonably counted, and was even a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The house museum, which he helped establish in 1923, has the inevitable aura of the hagiographic, and much of the literature on Roerich (in English, at least), reads like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s; holistic in worldview, reflective of  a grab-bag pantheistic spirituality, often nonsensical. To be fair, the keepers of the Roerich flame have a complicated and prolific legacy on their hands, and the task of relating his life’s work as a cohesive whole seems daunting.

Nevertheless, for a visitor chiefly interested in Roerich the painter, the quiet museum offers up a body of work by turns powerful and impotent, subtle and cloying, beautiful and downright ugly. The paintings are above all else surprising, and an engagement with them, even a fleeting one, can be deeply rewarding.

Taking them in as they line the stairway from the entranceway to the second floor, the first impression is of a Modernist through and through. Bright colors and flat planes dominate. Landscapes, distant villages dwarfed by mountains, are a recurrent motif. It is work that brings to mind Ferdinand Hodler, until one realizes, slowly but with increasing conviction, that it employs a language all its own.

Take these first landscapes. In the simple planes of the dwellings that perch somewhere in the near or middle ground, the painter establishes a bold if somewhat simplistic rendering of light and shadow. The front of a building, bathed in direct light, is a flat rectangle of ocher, the sides an equally flat cool blue. In the amorphous natural forms, however, Roerich abandons the language of planar painting, his movements across the open landscape revealing something altogether different. A mountain, a triangle of super flat saturation, will emerge out of a volumetric bank of clouds. A river, painted with great attention to form and volume, will slice through an utterly flat valley.

The contradiction is baffling, and it is everywhere. Krishna: Spring in Kula, 1929: One’s eye is drawn immediately to the rough impasto treatment of the paint as it is used to describe a burst of  spring blossoms in the foreground, a treatment echoed in the application of white to distant mountain peaks. Yet an entirely different painterly language works its way through the middle space, first to a green valley, then a succession of overlapping foothills, each rendered in almost absolute flatness, completely out of relation to the impasto forms. Koksar Camp, 1932: A magical and utterly convincing play of chalky purples, oranges and grays is hemmed in by acid-green river and sky. The colors, against the odds, work in harmony, that is until the eye travels to the bottom left hand corner of the canvas, where saturated cadmium red tents and flat blue mountains employ a palette that could be lifted directly from Mondrian. Kanchenjunga, 1936: Fluffy, billowing clouds have an interesting dialogue with crystal clear distant peaks, yet this scene is slapped down on a flat, maximally saturated ground, effectively shattering the painstakingly established space and color relationships.

As if the contrast of compelling versus cloying painting wasn’t self evident, at times it feels as though the curators of the museum have paired works together to help make the point. On the second floor, Building the Ships, 1903, hangs directly above Castle, 1936. The top painting, an early oil on panel sketch for a larger work, has something of Manet in the clear light that bounces off the ships’ hulls and of Maurice Prendergast in the busy workmen who people the scene. Here the painting is planar, one form against another against another, and there is great sophistication of color in the warm lights and cool shadows. The bottom painting, another sketch, this time for a set design for Maeterlinck’s drama Princess Maleine, is essentially a clumsy black drawing on a purple ground, with some yellow highlights thrown in.

On the top floor in Star of the Hero (which appears on the cover of Jacqueline Decter’s historically insightful, if critically passive, “Messenger of Beauty, The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich”), the figure of a man is silhouetted against a gold-lit Himalayan settlement, a shooting star tracing an arc over it all. It very well may be the worst painting I’ve ever seen. Yet next to it hangs Monhegan, Maine, 1922, a subtle movement of cool grays, blues and greens. (Perhaps it is Georgia O’Keefe whose work offers the most relevant stylistic parallel for Roerich’s work from nature. For like O’Keefe, Roerich’s renderings of naturalistic forms (prairies, mountains and skies) seem to rely on a gradual gradation or dissipation of color that reflect a personal emotional logic rather than the logic of recorded perception.)

Nicholas Roerich. "From Beyond." 1936

From Beyond, 1936: Two women, one reclining in the foreground, the other on a plank spanning a quickly moving stream. The stream under this makeshift bridge is a beautiful passage of painting. It has volume. It moves. It has both form and fluidity. And the color, simultaneously warm and cool, seems to generate its own light, like a piece of creamy jade. Let your eye wander to any other part of the picture, however, and it will arrive at painting as bad as the river passage is good. Further upstream, for instance, the river falls apart. It’s there, to be sure, but it has none of the other passage’s form, light or color.

Palpable is the feeling that this lack of coherence across the picture plane would be less disconcerting were it not for the holistic, all-encompassing worldview on which Roerich made his spiritual bed. With time, as the gulf between divergent painting styles becomes clear, one realizes that somewhere Roerich’s preoccupations as a painter gave way to those of the spiritualist. In From Beyond, it is the beautiful passage under the bridge that is the anomaly. It is a vestige of a painter’s sensibility peeking through the work of an illustrator. It is as if Rimbaud, in his later incarnation as merchant, let slip a line of verse in the middle of a sales bill.

With Roerich, it becomes evident that somewhere along the way (late 1920s? early 1930s?), the hows and whys of painting gave way to the pursuit of the narrative. The painterly language that is so strong in some of the earlier works is abandoned in favor of a graphic language better suited to his illustrational goals. The works, in effect, simply cease to be paintings.

The work of Rosemarie Beck comes to mind as a useful counterpoint because it too is overtly narrative painting. Yet Beck’s subject, in contrast to Roerich’s, is always the paint itself. The mythological scenes she depicts are a way into the world of painting, an armature to be built upon by the real flesh and blood of color and mark. In this mode of working, formal issues are first in the artist’s mind. When paint makes the first and lasting impression, it is no mistake that it takes a moment for the narrative to coalesce. With Roerich, by contrast, it is the narrative that hits home first, the painterly means to that end relegated to an afterthought.

Nicholas Roerich. "The Last Angel." 1912.

There is a middle period, somewhere between the Manet-like painting of 1903 and the Murikami-like super flat illustration of the 1930s, in which Roerich’s work hints at true greatness. The Last Angel, 1912: the depiction of an angel at the moment of Armageddon. Three distinct painterly styles are on display: the highly-stylized angel, borrowed from Byzantine and Russian icon painting; the tightly-bunched, extraordinarily volumetric clouds (which could with a cooler palette hover convincingly over Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire); and the medieval battlements, alluding to a time before the discovery of painterly perspective, engulfed in licks of flame below. Somehow, magically, these three voices work as a whole. The paint itself, in its varied applications, functions in concert with the imagery as a means of communication.

What is the upshot of a visit to this strange and fascinating museum? For one, it is a refreshingly unique encounter with painting. In its employment of often competing, sometimes harmonizing painterly languages, Roerich’s work ultimately leaves us with the question of whether the abandonment of relational painting served his needs?

If the answer is yes, then it is so only at the moment when those needs ceased to be those of a painter.

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Posted in: Museum Reviews