Roerich Museum permanent exhibition, 1927-1935
A.Yaremenko, Nicholai Konstantinovich Roerich: His Life and Creations during the past forty years: 1889-1929, New York: Central Book Trading Company, 1931, p.40
Roerich Museum, Roerich Museum Catalogue, New York, 1930, no.706, p.30
The present work dates from Roerich's legendary five-year expedition through India and Central Asia. Shortly before the trip ended in April 1929, Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize and he returned to the United States a famous man, invited to the White House by President Hoover to discuss his findings. The University of Paris had commended his efforts to achieve 'peace through raising the cultural levels of nations, the constant promotion of brotherhood and the creation of culture and beauty in all spheres of life'.
In his travel diary, Roerich describes 'the inexhaustibly rich rock formations', 'fiery rocks' and 'intense blue sky' that are found in the present work. 'Nature, having no outlet, inscribed epics with their wealth of ornamentation, on the rocks. One perceives how the forms of imagery blend with the mountain atmosphere. Just those forms, thought out in the West, here begin to live and become convincing. One may expect the appearance of Kuan Yin [the Chinese Goddess of Mercy]; or Lhamo prepares the element of destruction; or the image of Mahakala may issue from the mass of the cliff. And how many enchanted stone knights await their liberation! How many enchanted helmets and swords are hidden in the chasms!' (N.Roerich, Altai-Himalaya, A Travel Diary, London, 1930, p.107).
The central figure in the offered lot appears to be the lion-headed Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini. A dakini (Sanskrit for 'sky dancer') is a supernatural figure not unlike an angel or elf, particularly upheld in Tibetan Buddhism. According to legend, members of the Indian royal castes and the wealthy nobility brought their deceased to the far North to visit the Shrine of the Dakini (located at the foothills of the Himalaya). Other traditions cite a Tibetan myth which says dakini first appeared in a remote area 'pure of man'. Simhavatra Dakini was an attendant to the goddess Palden Lhamo and the provider of inspiration and knowledge and clearer of obstacles (fig.2) - a fitting deity for what would shortly become a very perilous journey on the border of Tibet. In the Gobi desert he 'rejoiced to find numerous most interesting artistic subjects. Firstly, the far-reaching ranges of the Chinese Altai mountains, then the auriferous Altyn-Tagh, give many colorful combinations. One does not see the merciless depression of the Taklamakan, but the multi-colored stone surfaces lend a decisive resonant tone.'
The bright reds of his Central Asian landscape recall some of his views of the Grand Canyon and indeed, he was fascinated by the physical resemblance of the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona to Mongolians. When he showed photographs of American Indians to Mongolians, they were also struck by the likeness, exclaiming: 'But those are Mongols!'. He believed that 'something ineffable, fundamental, beyond any external theories links these people'.
Unlike Alexander Yakovlev for example, Roerich tended not to always locate his paintings in his title or inscriptions on the reverse. He was bemused by the proliferation of European 'conquerors' who gave their names to these wild mountain ridges such as Marco Polo and tended to use local references in his writings. In addition, 'another original circumstance militates against obtaining precise names. The Mongols and Tibetans believe that one should not pronounce the names of places in the desert, otherwise the gods will be attracted by the name and become angry' (N.Roerich, Altai-Himalaya, A Travel Diary).
It had been a scientific expedition but also a spiritual quest. Roerich's book Heart of Asia makes this dual purpose explicit in its very structure. The first half presents the factual details of the trip: the places they had visited, the religious leaders they met, and archaeological and cultural discoveries. The second half, 'Shambhala', reveals the spiritual import of these same places, people, events, discoveries. This blending of the scientific and spiritual is also present in the hundreds of paintings he made during the expedition. 'His eye captures the shapes and colours of the mountains, monasteries, rock carvings, stupas, cities, and peoples of Central Asia; his soul understood their spirit; and his brush forged a synthesis of ineffable beauty' (J.Decter, Nicholas Roerich, 1989, p.173).
We are grateful to Gvido Trepša, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, for providing additional cataloguing information.
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