is one of Boris Grigoriev’s most unusual paintings. It was painted in early 1931 at his villa Borisella
in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, to which Grigoriev withdrew upon his return from a long trip to Chile, only occasionally leaving for Paris. ‘I live in my village near Nice: house, garden, pigeons, monkey, dogs’, he wrote to Maxim Gorky. ‘I acquired this property in order to dedicate myself to serious work.’ Indeed, it was a period when the artist was rethinking common issues of European cultural development and the role of the creator in this world.
Having gained worldwide recognition as an ironic, grotesque, even wicked interpreter of Russian themes in the 1920s, it might come as a surprise to find Grigoriev turning to Oriental culture, to the ancient Indian epic Ramayana
. This new direction is perhaps less unexpected when one considers that the artist was friends with Nikolai Roerich for many years and appreciated his work studying and preserving the culture of the East, and India in particular. In 1920 Grigoriev wrote to Roerich: ‘Here you are travelling to India. And I believe that you will show India to the world. You will show us not an Indian sitting on an elephant nor an Indian standing next to an elephant – you will show the elephant within the Indian. I wish I could see the whole of India in the eye of an Indian!’
Grigoriev tried to encapsulate the whole of India, if not in ‘the eye of an Indian’, then at least by depicting a generalised vision of Ramayana
’s mythological heroine Sita, dressed in traditional clothes and leaning on a veena
, a classical Indian string instrument. Sita, the divine companion of Rama and the ideal of female purity, is depicted full length in the centre of a blazing orange sphere of fields, from which, in the artist’s own words ‘the cheerful faces of Soviet boys peek out.
The painting is dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi – the spiritual teacher and political leader of India, who enjoyed tremendous popularity at that time (Time Magazine
proclaimed him Man of the Year 1930).
His philosophy of non-violence was close to the artist’s reflections on the healing power of art and spiritual and material unity.
Grigoriev showed Ramayana
at the exhibition of the Scythian
society which took place at the French Institute in Prague in March and April 1932. Artists from Russia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic participated in the exhibitions of this international association (1931, 1932, 1933), proclaiming Eurasianism
in art as a form of Slavic unity and a way to preserve national identity. Grigoriev was the only one of the eleven participants who was given the opportunity to show twenty works, most likely because he was the honorary chairman of the society in 1932. The wide thematic repertoire of his paintings – the Rasseya
and Faces of Russia
cycles (1921), the Chilean series (1929), the portraits of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1931), French still-lifes and landscapes (1930-1931) – all of these emphasized the unity of East and West as embraced by the Scythians
. With its unusual theme, the objects depicted and its scale, Ramayana
stood out even among this diverse selection of works.
When the exhibition closed Ramayana
was left in the office of the newspaper Prager Presse
. Its editor-in-chief Arne Laurin as well as its writer, critic and translator František Kupka were friends of Grigoriev and since these were financially difficult times for the artist they helped to sell the painting to a private collector. Grigoriev repeatedly asked them to sell it and wrote to Kupka on 9 September 1932: ‘I repeat that I am ready to sell Rachmaninoff
(Hindu) for 2000, both paintings.’ The painting was eventually sold and has remained out of public view ever since.
We are grateful to Tamara Galeeva for providing this note.