Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich (Russian, 1874-1947) 'The signal fires of peace' (Дымы Мира),
Lot 40* W
Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich
(Russian, 1874-1947)
'The signal fires of peace' (Дымы Мира),
Sold for £1,426,500 (US$ 2,417,525) inc. premium
Auction Details
Lot Details
Property from an important private collection, USA
Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich (Russian, 1874-1947)
'The signal fires of peace' (Дымы Мира), 1917-1918, possibly reworked in the late 1920s
oil and tempera on canvas supported by jute
100 x 155cm (39 3/8 x 61in).

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Painted in Karelia, 1917-1918
    Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, 1923-1935
    Collection of Nettie and Louis Horch, 1935
    Acquired from the above by a private American collector, mid 1970s
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Literature
    Illustrated in a clipping from an unknown American magazine, 1929 (in the archives of the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York)
    Roerich Museum Catalogue, New York, 1930, no. 446
    Trepša, G., Borisov Yu., Avtorskii spisok khudozhestvennykh proizvedenii N.K.Rerikha za 1917-1924 gg. S parallel'nymi dannymi iz spiska v monografii 'Roerich. Himalaya' (1926) i perechnia V.V. Sokolovskogo (1978), in Rerikhovskii Vek, exhibition catalogue, Saint Petersburg, 2009, pp. 37-52, listed as no. 4 for the year 1918
    Listed in the artist's catalogue compiled by V.V.Sokolovskii under erroneous title Pipe of Peace and continually mentioned under that title in consequent publications on the artist

    Nicholas Roerich's paintings are known for their extraordinary stylistic diversity and his early period was characterised by the artist's endless artistic experimentations. It was not until the late 1920s, early 1930s, during a trip to the Himalayas, that his style was fully developed and remained unchanged throughout the later part of his career. The brief period from 1916 to 1919 spent by the artist in Karelia became particularly important as it fostered many later stylistic changes to the artist's oeuvre. The artist was completely captivated by the solemn and majestic beauty of the European North and he spent his time studying Karelian-Finnish legends and Scandinavian sagas. These formative years coincided with two Russian revolutions and the early years of the subsequent civil war. The destructive force of the social chaos which was unleashed engulfed his country had a profound effect on the artist who believed strongly in the redeeming quality of the cultural achievements and the progress of humanity. He observed the revolutionary turmoil from a distance, occasionally visiting Russia and returning back to the peaceful calm of the North, to his home amidst the virgin beauty of its surroundings where nature and people seemed to coexist in perfect harmony. It was there that 'the scarlet flame – the flame of convulsions and seizures' of the social upheaval burning in the heart of the artist started transforming into the blue glow of 'spiritual ascensions and elevated consciousness' (Roerich, Nicholas, The Flame: Letter-Novel, in Passing by the Ways of Blessed Ones, New York, 1924, pp. 32-56).

    The artist's spiritual transformation inspired the creation of a small but highly significant series of works, unified thematically by the presence of bellicose riders in red cloaks, militant and aggressive crowds, combat scenes and glowing scarlet flames. The present painting entitled by the artist The Signal Fires of Peace, is the grand apotheosis of the series. Here the landscape for the first time is interpreted as a meditative and mystical component of the work and not simply as a beautiful background to the depicted story. The remarkable complexity of details and unusual colour palette add additional significance to this masterpiece. The sun has just risen above the horizon and floods everything with light: the snow on the foreground, the snow-capped mountains and the valley in the distance. The thin crescent of the moon is still visible in the sky; the snow gently reflects the light, showing a slight, pink hue; the colours in the sky are changing from east to west, from shining gold to emerald green; the snow-covered rooftops of the houses harmoniously merge with the mountain range as if flowing into one another; the intricately swirling clouds of smoke form pillars that rise to the sky like sacrificial pyres from the tops of the pyramids-ziggurats, and blend with the clouds. Each of these pillars is rendered in different colours, ranging from pink and gold to dark purple and almost black: a motif reminiscent of works by Konstantin Bogaevsky, Maximilian Voloshin and Mikalojus Konstantinas Churlenis, Roerich's contemporaries who also worked during the Russian Silver Age of the early 20th century.

    The figures of people and reindeers are executed in a stylized manner reminiscent of primitive petroglyphs of Ladoga rocks. Some of them are occupied with their daily chores, hunting or riding the reindeer-drawn sleighs, others seem simply to congregate together. Every element of the scene, be it nature, the village and its inhabitant, evokes feelings of peace, tranquillity and harmony. This idea of harmonious unity between nature and humans appeared in Roerich's novel The Flame where the artist describes a suite of paintings that he envisioned and even named Ayriana Vaedzha, the Aryan Expanse , but never completed. This name refers to the mythical historic homeland of the Aryan people and, consequently, of all the Indo-Europeans. Roerich writes: I was creating my 'Vaedzha' [...] in silence, in the midst of wonderful journeys. Amidst my assent to solemn mountains [...]. These paintings have to be like a string of jewels ... where the paint glows... and the same precision applies to the forms and lines. (Roerich, Nicholas, The Flame: Letter-Novel). It is not accidental that the artist refers to this series of paintings using the musical term 'suite', and his choices of colour palette and composition are very deliberate. The painting is a monumental, symbolic presentation of the artist's idea about the cradle of the Indo-European race as a primordial paradise. In the present lot, the people living in harmony with each other and nature appear in striking contrast with the messenger in the scarlet cloak who clashes with his harmonious surroundings. Roerich attempts to reconcile the eternal natural world and the rapidly changing world of humans who cause catastrophic events and create destabilizing changes. The painting illustrates the artist's contemplation of the ideal symbiotic co-existence of the humans and nature, as well voicing his concern about the destructive consequences that the action of maniacal and belligerent leaders can bring about.

    Myths, legends and parables about distant historic events have always been a vehicle to explain and reference events of the present. By circumventing direct comparison with current events, the artist is instead allowed to concentrate on the true essence and deeper meaning of the changes around him. Thus, the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution and its unavoidable violence is illustrated in Roerich's 1916 work, Shadows (Ill.1). The painting depicts a mediaeval city wall lit with approaching crimson fires reflecting the distorted shadows of a manic crowd set to attack the unprotected gate to the city. Their madness permeates the air and arouses the scarlet flame of rage in the heart of the artist. During this period, Roerich began writing several plays, only one of which has survived. It appears that Shadows was conceived as a stage design for one the plays from that period.

    Be fearful when the silent comes in motion.
    When winds that sown gather into storm.
    When language brims with words that have no meaning
    ... Be fearful, when the crowds are gathering near,
    Forsaking wisdom. Eager to destroy
    All what was learned before. With ease they carry out all which was threats...

    Nicholas Roerich (Flowers of Moria, Berlin, 1921)

    The artist, living as a recluse in Karelia, sought refuge from the tragedy of the historic events in the wisdom of Scandinavian legends and sagas, in which the rampant greed of a single madman can be controlled by the logic and order of a self-organizing society. In these legends, a village of peaceful people was always a frontier threatened by the madness of blood-seeking berserk warriors who lost all meaningful connection with the homeland and became uncontrollable destructive fugitives. Very often large groups of Vikings, returning to the villages after a season of booty-hunting and war-mongering by sea would pose a threat to the settlements. In the study, Not yet gone, 1917 (Ill.2), a flotilla under red sails had seized the village; two of the villagers are looking at their home from the opposite side of the bay. The drama of the invasion has already passed and those who came under crimson sails have painted the facades of the houses red. Yet spring is coming and refugees from the captured village are waiting for the departure of the bellicose invaders; the subsiding redness of the sky is reflected in the sea.

    In 1918 the artist created another work, presumably as a sketch for a theatre production, possibly for the same play (Ill.3). It portrays the bloodthirsty warrior in a bright scarlet cloak perched on a rock coloured an orange hue. A leather mask covers his face and his red cloak flaps in the wind like the wings of a bat. His right hand firmly squeezes the handle of his knife, while his left hand, fingers splayed, is stretched out to the side, seemingly determined to jump into the heat of the battle. The spears and helmets visible underneath belong either to his comrades, equally consumed by the raging madness of violence, or to the defenders of the village who are getting ready for a final battle. Sadly the manuscripts of the plays written by Roerich in Karelia were lost in transit and therefore a detailed comparison of his texts with his paintings from the same period is no longer possible. The only play to survive was Mercy, finished in November of 1917 (Roerich, Nicholas, Miloserdie, in Roerich, Nicholas, O vechnom, Moscow, 1991, p.415-437), which reveals Roerich's thoughts about the political events unfolding around him: mysterious emissaries of a strange dark force infected the crowds with uncontrollable hatred for the fundamental elements of human society and encouraged the destruction of schools, libraries, museums, temples of knowledge and culture. Salvation comes through the teaching of an Indian saint, Surendra Gayatri. In Mercy, Gayatri asks the Gods to send him a powerful raging force so that he can defeat the enemies' destructive forces which threaten society. Instead, he is granted the ability to reverse the attack and deflect it onto the ones who initiated the violence. Roerich wrote that his own hatred 'subsided' and 'the burning flame changed its colour'. The artist came to realize that it was in the wisdom of nature that one found the solution to internal conflict and a remedy to the ills of human society. He continues: 'now the flame in my soul is of a different colour. I can now calmly reflect on the colour of the flame that is no longer. The people are gone. But the circumstances still remain. One can remember them. But one can overcome and see it all with a kind eye' (Roerich, Nicholas, The Flame: Letter-Novel).

    It is known that the artist completed a study for the present work in late 1917. This mysterious and captivating painting was conceived by Nicholas Roerich as the culmination of a series unified by visual metaphors of red flames, rebellion and warriors wearing scarlet cloaks. This is the largest of the works in the series that is directly connected with Roerich's theatrical plays of the same period and the only one that has been painted on canvas. It is arguably one of the most important works painted during this period, one that conveys an important message from the artist about the future of civilization. It is possible that the figure of the messenger in a red cloak might have been added by Roerich after the main composition was completed, possibly in the mid- or late 1920s when he came to the United States. Perhaps for that reason, the artist decided against including this monumental painting in his travelling exhibits in the Scandinavian countries and America in the early 1920s. In 1929, the work was illustrated in an unidentified American magazine. The magazine stated that it was one of the most significant works of the artist and one that he was still in the process of completing. Yet the artist never reworked the painting, having probably decided that it fully expressed his vision and was ready to be exhibited.

    Having disappeared for a long time from scholars and collectors, and for a while, stripped of its original title, this magnificent painting now returns triumphantly to the art world, drawing attention to the formative early years of Roerich's career. This symbolic masterpiece, inspired by the artist's reflections on the events of the Russian Revolution, and directly connected with his plays, is arguably one of the most significant discoveries of the season.

    Dmitri Popov
    State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

    The author would like to thank Gvido Trepša (Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York) for his assistance with research and providing essential information for the cataloguing of the present work.

    Bonhams would like to the management of the International Centre of the Roerichs in Moscow, the State Russian Museum and the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York for supplying images to support this catalogue entry.
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