Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich always claimed The Rite of Spring, – the ballet that caused a riot at its premiere by the Ballets Russes a century ago – was his idea. (Its composer Igor Stravinsky begged to differ.) But Roerich certainly had a hand: he wrote the libretto, and designed the original sets and costumes, which, with their pagan head-dresses, shapeless shifts, cross-gartered leggings and heavy tribal jewellery, were regarded as even more controversial than Stravinsky's violently percussive score and Nijinsky's iconoclastic choreography.
But although he had created the sets and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Ivan the Terrible – not to mention a version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt for the pioneering theatre director Konstantin Stanislavsky – Roerich was far more than a scenographer, and far more than a painter, despite leaving an oeuvre of around 7,000 works.
Roerich was a polymath. The official annals of the Nobel Prize described him as a "scenic designer, archaeologist, landscape painter, Asiatic explorer and mystic philosopher" when he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work on the "Roerich Pact": the international treaty that protects artistic and scientific institutions and historic monuments from attack in times of conflict.
It was Roerich's interest in ethnography and anthropology, in ancient rituals and folkloric traditions, that led Stravinsky to consult him about The Rite of Spring. Moreover, Nijinsky remembered Roerich talking "at length about his paintings [which] he describes as the awakening of the spirit of primaeval man [...] the violet and purple colours of the vast barren landscapes of the predawn darkness, as a ray of the rising sun shines on a solitary group gathered on top of a hill to greet the arrival of spring". It's a description that chimes with Madonna Laboris, the masterpiece that will be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in June, although it wasn't painted until 1931. Here too, the palette is predominantly one of purplish blues; the light is crepuscular, the hilly landscape bleak, the figures solitary and distant but strikingly illuminated.
The son of a lawyer of Scandinavian descent, Roerich was born in St Petersburg in 1874. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts under the outstanding painter of light and landscapes Arkhip Kuindzhi, but (bowing to parental pressure) he simultaneously read law at St Petersburg University. Somehow he managed to combine this with lecturing at the Institute of Archaeology, another of his passions – as were architecture, literature, poetry and Eastern philosophy.
Painting, however, remained his principal occupation. He was part of the artists' colony at Talashkino, established by his patron, Princess Maria Tenisheva, where the likes of painters Ilya Repin and Mikhail Vrubel thrived; and he was also the chairman of Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), the artistic movement and magazine established by the artist-cum-stage designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, along with Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.
Roerich left Russia after the revolution in 1918, first for Finland, then a year later for London, where he and his wife Helena established a school to promote an ideal for living called Agni Yoga – "a path not of physical disciplines, meditation or asceticism, but of practice in daily life [of a] yoga of fiery energy, of consciousness, of responsible, directed thought" – that endures to this day. In England his social circle included the writers H.G. Wells, Rabindranath Tagore and the Buddhist barrister Christmas Humphreys. He hoped to earn money by designing operas for Sir Thomas Beecham's Covent Garden company – but Roerich always maintained he was never paid.
Fortunately, the Roerichs were saved from money worries by an invitation from the Art Institute of Chicago to go to the US, where he, Helena and their two sons remained until 1925. They settled first in Chicago, where he designed for the Lyric Opera thanks to his friendship with soprano Mary Garden, and later in New York. His signal achievement in this period was the Ocean series of paintings, made during the summer of 1922, which he spent on Monhegan – a remote speck 22km off the coast of Maine. The island's big skies and watery light reminded him of northern Russia and Finland. In these works he conjured spare, dramatic, increasingly stylised landscapes. He began to take greater risks with saturated colour, combining intense yellows with strong pinks and mauves to suggest seascapes at sunset, the flat silvery water broken by threatening outcrops of jagged rock.
The series was an immediate success, prompting a group of patrons to establish a museum of his work in New York. Now at 319 West 107th Street, it holds a collection of more than 200 paintings and 500 drawings. More crucially, he persuaded his supporters to fund a journey to India and its neighbours – an expedition from which he never really returned.
In 1923, he and his family sailed to Bombay, and spent the rest of the year touring the country before making their way into the Himalayas, to the high-altitude kingdom of Sikkim, which lies between Nepal and Tibet. Mountains would inspire him ever after – not simply their angular forms and the intense colours he saw in them, but what his biographer Jacqueline Decter calls "the spiritual mysteries harboured within them": "Mountains! Mountains! What magnetic forces are concealed within you?", he wrote. "What a symbol of quietude is revealed in every sparkling peak! The legends of the greatest valour are conceived near mountains. The most human words find outlet at snowy heights."
From Sikkim the Roerichs crossed 35 mountain passes at altitudes of between 4,000m and 6,500m, in a journey that took them across the Himalayas to Ladakh, Kashmir, Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia and back to Tibet – where they were "forcibly stopped by the authorities in spite of our having Tibetan passports", Roerich recalled. It was only "the superiority of our firearms prevented bloodshed"; even so five of their party died during their five-month detention, during which, half-starved, they lived in tents in freezing temperatures.
When eventually they were allowed to make their way back into India, they headed for the Kullu valley near Naggar, in what is now Himachal Pradesh. They settled there, and established the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute for the study of Himalayan flowers, herbs and traditional medicine, ethnolinguistics and archaeology.
It was at Kullu in 1931 that Roerich began to paint his three great Madonnas, of which Madonna Laboris was the first. (Two companion pieces, Madonna Oriflamma and Madonna Protectoris, followed in 1932 and 1933.) In 1924 he had painted The Mother of the World, usually taken as the first of his series of "great female deities". She is a recognisably Christian Madonna with a blue veil and halo, although there is something of a Hindu goddess – a Lakshmi or a Kali – about the way she is seated on a rocky throne, surrounded by a sea populated with tiny fish, a starry firmament behind her.
In contrast, Madonna Laboris sets mystical Christian iconography – in this instance an icon-like Orthodox Virgin with an unearthly glittering halo – within a forbidding, ostensibly earthly, landscape. Inspired by lines spoken by St Peter from one of the Apocryphal Gospels ("All day long I watch the gates of Paradise; I do not let anyone in, yet in the morning there are newcomers in Paradise."), the painting depicts a fortress-like Heaven. Mary leans over its wall while St Peter watches, her long white scarf trailing down through the clouds into earthly mountains so that lost souls may climb up it and enter the Kingdom of God.
Within its grim walls, Paradise is painted in lapis, cobalt and soft blue-greens, its bosky gardens dotted with golden-domed pavilions. Below the clouds, however, Hell is a hostile wasteland, a place of vicious black rocks, some shaped like demons, and blazing orange and crimson fires.
It is a masterly, utterly absorbing work, subtler and more mysterious than Madonna Oriflamma, who sits enthroned like a Renaissance Virgin between two arched windows giving onto blue mountain landscapes. She holds a banner bearing a red circle containing a triangle made up of three red dots: the device that became the symbol of the Roerich Pact when it was signed in Washington in 1935 by the 21 countries of the Pan-American Union (it has now been ratified by 39 nations). Indeed, when Roerich died, aged 73, in Kullu in December 1947, he saw the pact as the defining achievement of his extraordinary life.
Throughout the Russian revolution and two world wars he had kept faith in the belief that an "awareness of beauty [would] save the world. [...] This is my will to everybody," he said. "Love your Motherland. Love the Russian people. Love all people in our country. Let this love teach us to love all mankind..."
Claire Wrathall writes for the Financial Times.