The perennial debate regarding the relation between an artist's life and their work usually implies a discrepancy. On the one hand we have the creator's allegedly sordid, or at least flawed, character; on the other, their work's attempt to transcend these imperfections and reach loftier ideals. One needs to think only of Picasso or Woody Allen to realise that the biographical is often employed to undermine or cast a shadow over the artistic.
The new exhibition at the Russian Museum, however, does just the opposite. Rather than pitting the artist and his art against each other, it attempts to present a synthesis of the intriguing life of the polymath Nikolai Roerich and his artistic production.
The paintings of Roerich (1874-1947) evince an eclectic humanism which combines history and mysticism; reality and fantasy. A restless spirit, Roerich travelled until he found his place in the world in the Himalayas, which are the focus of the final section of the exhibition, In Search of Shambala. Shambala was an imagined land which represented Roerich's search for a sort of universal spiritual communion. His work is a bridge between the earthly and the mystical, and between East and West.
The artist also lent his name to the 1935 Roerich Pact, an important milestone in the protection of cultural heritage in international law. The path that had led him to this point had been one of great change and exploration in both his artistic production and his life, as the exhibition shows.
Folklore was a leitmotif of Roerich's work. His interest in the demotic, as well as his obsession with mysticism, are evident in paintings such as Idols (1901) and Sacred Island (1917). According to curator Evgenia Petrova, Roerich was 'fascinated by the idea that all peoples and religions share a connection, and the notion that humanity shares a common origin, despite migration and other changes'.
His syncretic style led him to combine scenes of Russian military history, prominent in Guests from Overseas (1901), with the esoteric enthusiasm of works such as Earthly Spell (1907).
The central part of the exhibition displays several large paintings depicting historical and folkloric scenes. One walks past the imposing Sadko and Volga Svyatoslavovich before reaching the cool serenity of the Himalayan landscapes that Roerich called home in later life. Perhaps he did find the Shambala that he had always dreamed of.