A CONCERT first led me to the Roerich Museum on West 107th Street in Manhattan. I had not been aware of this fascinating museum in a graystone row building near Riverside Drive. The concert was held in one of the museum's galleries, and as I sat listening, my eyes traveled from one painting to another, reveling in the vivid blues, the glowing reds, the fiery yellows. The predominant medium was tempera. I felt a sense of awe amounting almost to intimidation as, in painting after painting, the Himalayas looked down at me from their incredible heights. These majestic mountain ranges were painted with clarity and power. I was intrigued by Roerich's paintings - not only by their arresting colors, but also by their austere, primeval mood, their monumentality, and their air of prophecy. I was to return often to view them.
Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich was born in Russia in 1874. The name, of Scandinavian origin, means ``rich in glory'' - and he is. He is renowned not only as an artist, but also as a writer, scholar, scientist, archaeologist, and leader of a worldwide peace movement.
The somber forests of northern Russia made a deep impression during his childhood. Even then, he showed a love of nature and a fascination with the ancient past. As a young boy he dug in the earth to find historic relics. He also wrote stories and sketched and painted. These interests grew as he grew.
Shortly before his graduation from the St. Petersburg School of Fine Arts, he produced a painting that attracted attention. This work, ``The Messenger,'' like many he was to create, arouses a strong feeling of closeness with a remote past. The messenger is paddling over the water in a primitive boat, carrying urgent news - perhaps to the two wanderers wending their way through the melancholy northern twilight. The tone of primeval mystery in this painting is prophetic of many to come.
The grandeur much of his work conveys is doubtless the outcome of his archaeological research into the Stone Age. Byzantine and Oriental influences are also present, and his study and admiration of early Russian art and architecture left a strong imprint. His many years in India and Tibet, during which he was influenced by Indian religious ideas and the awe-inspiring Himalayas, had perhaps the greatest impact on his work. But Roerich revered all the major religions; some of his paintings have Judeo-Christian themes. A painting in the New York collection depicts Elijah, the Hebrew prophet, ascending into heaven in his chariot of fire. The sky, which occupies two-thirds of the painting, is a glorious, smoldering orange. Below, the earth is suggested by darker hues. Elijah and his chariot are outlined in pale gold against the fiery sky.
Roerich gained a reputation as a stage designer with his sets for Borodin's ``Prince Igor'' and Stravinsky's ``The Rite of Spring.'' The joyous colors and primitive forms of his sets for ``The Rite of Spring'' evoked a strong feeling for man's first days on earth.
During his American sojourn, the famous opera singer Mary Garden commissioned him to do sets for Rimsky-Korsakov's ``The Snow Maiden,'' in which she starred at the Chicago Opera. His sense of the dramatic and his strong, clean colors made him a natural for theater design.
IN 1920, Roerich made his first visit to the United States at the invitation of the Art Institute of Chicago. The institute sponsored an exhibition tour of his work. He also gave lectures in some of the cities to which his paintings traveled. Roerich Societies were formed during his three-year stay, forwarding his ideals of peace, beauty, and knowledge. Some of his books came out in English during this time, further promoting his ideas. The New York Roerich Museum opened during his first year in America. It houses about 1,000 of his more than 7,000 paintings.
While spending time in Monhegan Island, Maine, he painted a group of pictures known as his ``Ocean Series.'' He was always attracted by the grand and monumental aspects of nature.
Roerich next traveled to India, and it was from his Indian period that some of his best-known literary works came, such as ``Heart of Asia'' and ``Himalaya,'' as well as many, many paintings. In India, he founded the Himalayan Research Institute, built on a mountain ridge at a level of 6,500 feet. Here botanical studies were carried on, as well as technological and linguistic research. Tibetan dialects were studied. The work of the institute was interrupted, however, by World War II. Nonetheless, the many magnificent paintings of these mighty mountain ranges aroused great interest, and many expeditions were made to the Himalayas as a result.
In 1930, the First International Convention dedicated to the Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace was held in Belgium. This project had been begun by Roerich in New York. It proposed that all educational, artistic, scientific, and religious institutions be proclaimed inviolate, to be respected by all countries in peace or in war. The Roerich Banner of Peace - a design made up of three red spheres enclosed in a red circle on a white background - was to be flown over these institutions. (The Roerich Museum in New York still displays this banner.) The pact was endorsed by the International Museums Office of the League of Nations. Committees were formed worldwide to work for its acceptance under the name ``Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace Societies.''
In 1935, this pact was signed in the White House by official representatives of the US and 20 Latin American nations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said on this occasion: ``This treaty possesses a spiritual significance far deeper than the text of the instrument itself. Let us bring renewed allegiance and helpfulness, which, I feel assured, will be a great contribution to civilization by the Americas.'' Roerich's peace efforts anticipated the worldwide yearning for peace today in the face of man's ever-growing capacity for self-destruction.
Roerich's Himalayan paintings are perhaps his most famous and loved. The Tibetan landscape particularly impressed him. His painting ``Remember'' is a fine example of its mood of ancient strangeness and pathos, with the tiny figure of the rider gazing back at the small house, and the awesome vastness of the snowy mountain range looming behind. The rider seems to be taking one last look at the house and the two people standing outside before starting his perilous journey.
Not only the landscape but also the astounding architecture of Tibet filled Roerich with awe. Monasteries perched on inaccessible mountain cliffs aroused wonder and admiration in him for these daring ancient architects. His son, Svetoslav Roerich, who was also a fine painter, executed an impressive portrait of his father against the background of his beloved mountains.
Roerich died in India in 1947, leaving an amazing lifework in artistic, literary, humanitarian, and scientific fields.
In one of his essays he wrote, ``From continually living in fear and fighting against the world that surrounds him, man has come to imprison himself in a labyrinth from which there will be no escape until he again strikes the broad highway whence he started. This immense beauty of a far-off past stirs him to visions of the future, of a New Era, when the aspiration toward art and the effort to beautify life will again be universal.''