How did the world remember Nicholas Roerich - the man who painted Shangri-La
How did the world remember Nicholas Roerich - the man who painted Shangri-La

Nicholas Roerich was an artist, scientist, archaeologist, adventurer, editor and writer, and this is only a small part of what is known about this amazing man. Combining all his efforts, he wrote and presented the world's first "Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historical Monuments." Roerich was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and created a philosophical school of living ethics. But the most interesting of his endeavors was the search for the hidden secrets of the world, including the elusive Shangri-La. His undying love for various folk traditions: Slavic, Indian, Tibetan - was what sparked his interest in the mysterious Shambhala, and his desire to see the invisible and understand the incomprehensible is reflected in his art and writings.

Nikolai was born in 1874 in St. Petersburg into a German and a Russian family. As a child of noble birth, he was surrounded by books and intellectual friends of his parents. At the age of eight, he entered one of the most prestigious private schools in the city. Initially, it was assumed that his education would put him on the path of a lawyer. However, Nikolai had much more ambitious plans. During his holidays at Izvara Estate, he discovered a passion that would define his future life: folk legends. Shrouded in mystery and filled with discovered ancient heritage, Izvara became the place where Nikolai first tried himself as an archaeologist.

Portrait of Nicholas, Svyatoslav Roerich, 1937. \ Photo:

Creating detailed maps of the region and describing his findings, the young Roerich drew the attention of one of the most prominent Russian archaeologists of that time - Lev Ivanovsky, whom he helped in excavating mysterious local burial mounds. The mystery of these burials and pagan traditions subsequently pushed Nicholas to create several of his masterpieces, inspired by Slavic legends. Then a thought flashed through his head: what if there is some truth in fairy tales. And, perhaps, what cannot be discovered by archeology can be represented with the help of art.

A hut in the mountains, Nicholas Roerich, 1911. \ Photo:

Obsessed with the past, he began to paint. Soon his talent was noticed by a family friend, a sculptor named Mikhail Mikeshin. Since Nikolai's father wanted his son to become a successful lawyer, like himself, and never approved of his occupations, nevertheless, the young artist entered both St. Petersburg University and the Russian Academy of Arts. With the rise of Russian symbolism and its search for hidden truths and harmony, Nikolai was destined to fall under the spell of young artists who later formed a group known as the World of Art. In 1897 he graduated from the academy, presenting his final work, The Bulletin. A year later, he graduated from the university, but gave up all ideas about the practice of law.

Slash at Kerzhenets, Nicholas Roerich, 1911. \ Photo:

Fascinated by the medieval traditions of Russia, Nikolai traveled through the empire, restoring monuments and collecting folklore. Before daring to discover Shangri-La, he turned to Russian myths in the hope of finding the legendary city of Kitezh.

Allegedly located on Lake Svetloyar and erected by a Russian prince at the end of the 12th century, Kitezh occupied the space between dreams and reality. Like Shangri-La, Kitezh was supposed to be a place of artistic beauty and sophistication. Like Shangri-La, he was hidden from prying eyes. The city was swallowed up by the waters of the lake, which once protected it from the Tatar invasion.Nikolai himself later believed that Kitezh and Shambhala could well be one and the same place. Its location is not connected with the present reality, and the entrance to it is hidden somewhere in the Himalayas.

Idols, Nicholas Roerich, 1901. \ Photo:

The most famous work of the artist, dedicated to Kitezh - "Slaughter at Kerzhenets", was created for the "Russian Seasons" festival in Paris. It was a magnificent curtain that made the viewer, like the artist, search for the lost city. The Roerich image of Kitezh glows red and orange, the waters of the lake reflect the inevitable bloodshed of the upcoming battle. Kitezh itself appears in the foreground, the reflection of its bulbous domes and ornate porches visible in the orange lake. Playing with perspective, Nikolai created the dream of the Russian Shangri-La, which was open only to the most observant viewers.

Krishna, or Spring in Kullu, Nicholas Roerich, 1929. \ Photo:

Nikolai's interest in early Slavic history was shared by his contemporaries, including the composer Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring brought fame and success to both the composer and the artist. These Slavic themes reappeared in many of Roerich's works. The beginning of Russia, the Slavs reflect the ideas of Nicholas about the mystical forces and knowledge of his ancestors. Idols depict a solemn pagan rite announcing the presence of long-gone gods. Immersed in Slavic myths, the artist began to look for similar legends in the folklore of other countries, from Kitezh to the more abstract concept of Shangri-La. Working with the most prominent Russian artists of his time, he created sketches for mosaics and frescoes, reviving the technique of medieval Russian and Byzantine masters.

Tangla. Song about Shambhala, Nicholas Roerich, 1943. \ Photo:

The artist's desire for versatility led him to oriental art. As he collected East Asian art, especially Japanese, and wrote articles on Japanese and Indian masterpieces, his attention shifted from the Slavic epic to Indian legends. As a lover of colors, Nikolai abandoned oils and turned to tempera, which allowed him to create these sought-after warm shades and rich colors. His portrayal of the Himalayas is not too different from his portrayal of Russian fields, where nature always dominates man, and the artificially reduced horizon suppresses the viewer.

Kanchenjunga, or Five Treasures of High Snow, Nicholas Roerich, 1944. \ Photo:

From 1907 to 1918, ten monographs devoted to Roerich's work appeared in Russia and Europe. As for the artist himself, his fate took an unexpected turn, which brought him closer to the mystery of Shangri-La. In 1916, Nikolai fell ill and moved with his family to Finland. After the October Revolution, he was expelled from the USSR. The artist did not return home, but instead moved to London and joined the Occult Theosophical Society, which pursued the same principles of world harmony that governed the life of Nicholas. The idea to reveal their inner potential and find a connection with the cosmos through art pushed Roerich and his wife Elena to create a new philosophical doctrine - "Living Ethics".

Svyatogor, Nicholas Roerich, 1942. \ Photo:

He spent the next years of his life in the USA and Paris, where he participated in successful exhibitions and looked for new legends that captivated him no less than Slavic folklore. While Russian themes remained prominent in Nikolai's life, his passion for Central Asia and India soon overshadowed his other aspirations. In 1923, he organized a grandiose archaeological expedition to Central Asia, hoping to find the mysterious Shangri-La. In the following years of his research in Asia, Roerich wrote two ethnographic books about the Himalayas and India. He also created over half a thousand paintings that captured the beauty of the landscapes he encountered.

Shangri-La Roerich, like Kitezh, was a dream, a vision of untouched and magical beauty, to which only a select few had access. It is impossible to find out where Shangri-La is, as the artist believed he found her while wandering in the mountains. His breathtaking landscapes prove he is right. Based on the legends of Kitezh and Shambhala, he mapped out his routes and wrote down his impressions in several books.

En-no Gyodzia - friend of travelers, Nicholas Roerich, 1925. \ Photo:

After the expedition, Nikolai's family founded the Himalayan Research Institute in New York and the Urusvati Institute in the Himalayas.He wrote the Charter, which would later be known as the Roerich Pact - the first treaty in the world that protects monuments of art and culture from wars and armed conflicts. As an art historian, artist and archaeologist, he was an ideal candidate for the protection of monuments.

Alexander Nevsky, Nicholas Roerich, 1942. \ Photo:

In 1935, the artist moved to India, immersing himself in Indian folklore and creating his most famous paintings. He never once gave up his love for the uneven lines and contrasts, as well as the extended horizons that mark many of his paintings. Nicholas considered India the cradle of human civilization and sought to find connections between Russian and Indian culture, looking for similar patterns in legends, art and folk traditions. This included his favorite theme of the lost city of Shangri-La, from which Shambhala was inspired.

And we open the gates, Nicholas Roerich, 1922. \

He wrote that the path to Shambhala is the path of consciousness in his Heart of Asia. A simple physical map will not take you to Shangri-La, but an open mind accompanied by a map can do the job. Nikolai's paintings were maps that gave the viewer a quick glimpse of Shangri-La: a place of serene wisdom, rendered in vibrant colors and distorted shapes. He immersed himself in Indian cultural life, befriended Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and continued to paint his favorite mountains and legends.

The Keeper of the World, Nicholas Roerich, 1937. \ Photo:

In his later works, he noted that two themes have always captured his imagination: Ancient Russia and the Himalayas. Working on his Himalayan suite, he created three more paintings - "Awakening of the Heroes", "Nastasya Mikulishna" and "Svyatogor".

At this time, the Soviet Union was devastated by the Second World War. Nikolai wanted to express the plight of the Russian people in his paintings, combining both Indian and Russian themes. Painting the Himalayas, he believed that he had really discovered Shangri-La. Some of his story may even be true. All of the artist's later paintings share one quality in common - their stretched bird's-eye view of the jagged outlines of mountains and grouped architecture.

Panteleimon the Healer, Nicholas Roerich, 1916. \ Photo:

Stylistically, his paintings depicting Russian epics are similar to his Indian paintings. His love of contrasts and exaggerated forms dominates the composition. The captivating nature of his works captivates the viewer, transferring them to a mystical place: Kitezh or Shambhala, or, perhaps, Shangri-La, a term that has become a nickname for any lost city.

Overseas guests, Nicholas Roerich, 1901. \ Photo:

Unlike other artists of his time, Nikolai escaped the trap of Orientalism. He never portrayed the East to others. For him, both the East and the West were just two sides of the same coin, his passion for Russian heroes was equal to his interest in Indian heroes and gurus. He refused to distinguish between them and instead sought connections, theosophical views pushed to explore the limits of the spiritual in his paintings.

As an international figure, he never stopped looking for these connections, his particular style of painting adapted to the depiction of Russian, Indian and even Mexican themes. Perhaps it was the desire to understand all the legends of the world that prompted him to write Shangri-La in the first place.

Mother of the World, Nicholas Roerich, 1924. \ Photo:

In twenty years, he painted about two thousand Himalayan paintings, part of a stunning collection of seven thousand paintings. The Kullu Valley, nestled among the majestic snow-capped peaks, became his home and workplace. It was here that Nikolai died in 1947. According to his wishes, his body was cremated. He was given the title of saint or maharishi. Between the two countries that he loved very much, he died in India, not far from the entrance to the mystical Shambhala. For a person who has found his Shangri-La, his last desire to stay by her side is quite appropriate.

Continuing the topic about Nicholas Roerich, read also about how an artist saved art by signing a pact.

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