Discovering the Art of Nicholas Roerich
Public interest in the works of well-known Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) has always remained unchanged in almost all major cultural and artistic metropolises. Recently, on the Indian art scene have appeared paintings of the artist from private collections and galleries that have long remained in the shadow of public attention and, in some cases, were exhibited for the first time. One of these little known treasures titled La hutte de baba Yaga was exhibited at an art auction in India – this medium – size canvas is one of the later versions of the paintings on this subject and was created by the artist in 1920 during his stay in London.
According to, auction’s data the work originally belonged to N. Roerich’s friend, Russian immigre, art critic and journalist – Arkady Roumanoff. In handwritten records of the artist kept in Nicholas Roerich Museum archives in New York, the work Hut was registered under number forty, dated 1920.
The painting depicts a dark and massive wooden hut placed upon four big pillars seen against a gloomy sky with unmovable clouds. The Hut is situated on a top of the rocky rise amidst barren hills and grey lakes with only one tree visible at the side. The whole landscape of this painting remind us of the North, the vast scenery of the Russian Karelia and Finland where artist used to live and work between 1916-19. ”From ancient and severe North brought his art Roerich, – wrote artist’s contemporary, art critic M. Voloshin in his article Archaizm in Russian Art.
“And, it is as harsh, heavy and hostile as his earth…It is impossible to define, how many millenaries separate us from this earth of Roerich, the earth which just revealed itself from the thick slice of eternal ice, the earth which still preserved on its surface fresh traces of deep scratches and furrows imprinted by cold masses of Ice Age. There are no bushes, nor trees upon this land, just moss as dark as wood of ancient icons, covering cold and wet rocks. Sometimes, in this wilderness are seen rare spinney of runty pine trees, dark and twisted, with short needles. The earth still preserves its primordial – obscure, dark and deep tones under gloomy and heavy sky.”
As many of artist’s works from this period the painting Hut also vividly demonstrates distinctive Roerich style with his faceted shapes and outlines of objects, with his fascination with the sky, clouds and ascetic landscapes, with his intuitive submersion into epoch of Stone Age, man’s early beliefs and rituals.
The painting also illustrates an unique combination of the artist, historian and archaeologist.
Indeed, Roerich’s artistic style and method would have been quite different if he would not connect himself directly with earth, with the rough surface of soil through his numerous archaeological excavations of ancient mounds and entombments, through his tangible touch with objects of antiquity, through his inquisitive observation.
“Achingly nice feeling to be the first and remove from the land some antiquity, to be in touch immediately with a bygone era,”- wrote artist in 1899, in his article “Artist’s sketches”. “The age-old gray fog varies and with each stroke of a shovel, with each stroke of scrap disclosed to you enticing fairy kingdom, wider and richer deployed wonderful pictures.”
Archaeology become one of Roerich’s most favorite activity. Since 1896 he began his association with the Imperial Russian Archaeological Society and having become its working member in 1897 started giving lectures, conducted field excursions and finally professional archaeological excavations leading to a number of discoveries. Gradually, over the years, Roerich built up immense collection of the Stone Age reliques which included 75,000 objects.
”What he has to say of the Neolithic Period is of extraordinary interest,”- points out Barnett D.Conlan in his book “Roerich”.”The knowledge of the man of science, the perception of the artist, and the vision of the poet have all combined to give us a living picture altogether unrivalled in the annals of archaeology. The world of prim
itive savages and cave dwellers, which figures so miserably on the first pages of our history books, is here restored to its real stature, and shown as a period of splendid art.”
Roerich’s archaeological findings and historical hypothesis found its beautiful expression in first series of his works on the history of Slavs and ancient Russia titled: Beginning of the Russia. The Slavs (1896). In the landscapes and historical settings from this period images of rocky surface of land, stony slopes of hills and islands occupy a prominent role. Boulders and stones turning to symbols and place of mysterious cult like it was portrayed in painting Idols (1901) where the pagan sacred place “kapische”, with a massive wooden wall and sculls of animals is surrounded with grey boulders.
Apparently, the painting Hut is a part artist’s works dealing with the subject of ancient Russia and pre-Christian folklore.
The type of the house-architecture with massive wooden pillars supporting a structure above the ground level suggests that these kind of buildings were used as a place of burial for pre-Christian communities. In these animistic communities, the hut was believed to be a place where one could crossover to the world of dead, a parallel realm to the earthly one.
“ The idea of piles, the idea of artificial isolation of housing over the land within Russia has long existed, – wrote Roerich in his article Good Eye. “ Many centuries have lived in the Siberian and Ural saivy – houses on poles, where the hunters are hiding skins. In ancient barter trade, such stores played a major role. Here we have a great antiquity. The burial of Nestor “on the pillars of the roads” – the death of the Slavic antiquity, fabulous huts on hen’s legs – all this revolves around the idea of pile construction.”
Similar type of buildings are depicted in several works of Roerich, including: The Hut of the Dead (1909), Stone Age (1910), Hut in the Mountains (1912), Lake Village (1915), Heavenly Battle (1915), and others.
While in the painting The Hut of the Dead a potential source of inspiration for the artist was the story of Baba Yaga derived from Slavic folklore, then in the painting Hut the plot of the story has a different origin and related to a notorious personage of Russian epic – Nightingale-the Robber.
The kind of wooden archaic construction raised on piles above the ground, shape and texture of these piles used by the artist in this painting resembles to another work from monumental series called the ‘Heroic Frieze’
Between 1908-1910, Roerich executed a series of panels for the mansion of a prominent industrialist and honorary citizen of St. Petersburg F. G. Bazhanov. The house was designed by architect P. R. Aleshin in 1907-1908 in the art Nouveau style. The theme of heroic Ancient Russia was dominant in the interior design.
The impressive large panel made by N. K. Roerich decorated the dining room at home. The “Heroic Frieze” develops national-romantic heroic theme. The series consists of seven large plot panels of two-meter height on the themes of Russian epics and twelve decorative compositions.
The frieze was placed directly above the wooden panels, occupying all the space up to the ceiling along the perimeter of the entire hall, including window openings and fillings.
On the sides of the fireplace were paintings “Volga Svyatoslavovich” and “Mikula Selyaninovich”, also conceived as a pair. If the image of the great Plowman on the background of a wide landscape breathes with smoothness and softness, the Volga squad is depicted more dynamically and rhythmically.
Two of them : the panels “Ilya Muromets” and “Nightingale the Robber”, located on the sides of a large window opening, were also built on the contrast of the images. Epic hero represents the defender of the Russian land. He shoots an arrow, which accurately hits the target. Nightingale-Robber, huddled in the hut, shown defeated with a arrow.
It appears, that as many other artists, N.Roerich had a favorite themes and personages which used to emerge in his paintings in a new compositional space and artistic interpretation and painting Hut is the one of the artist’s latest and interesting variants on this subject.
About the Author
Vladimir Zaitsev is a curator, author and museologist affiliated with the National Museum, New Delhi.