As a creative figure, Nicholas Roerich was distinguished not only by his striking and original artwork, but also by his endeavours as a writer, inspirational thinker, cultural leader and traveller. Archaeology also played an important role in the development of Roerich’s oeuvre. The Stone Age was a primary source of inspiration for Roerich, who saw it as the cradle of humankind, the initial source of artistry and the natural inclination of mankind towards creative processes.
Roerich's initial creative activity and education went alongside the archaeological excavations he participated in. Inherently this led him to combine the two and even create an educational programme which brought together drawing and archaeological practices, which he taught at the St Petersburg Archaeological Institute. Needless to say that Roerich's passion for archaeology is conveyed throughout his artistic output, from his depictions of the Slavic-Scandinavian Middle Ages and the Stone Age in the Russian North. His interest in the latter became increasingly theoretical, and subsequently, he devoted his key, comprehensive essay on the history and theory of art 'The Joy of Art' to the initial origin and inception of prehistoric society, a period when the creative and aesthetic development of human beings and the organisation of their living space represented their inner needs, which were inextricably linked with their pantheistic perception and experience of their surroundings and way of life.
He wrote: 'Life was overtly joyous during the Stone Age. Galvanised by the wonderful instincts of harmony and rhythm, humanity finally entered the realm of art. Celebration. Long live the celebration that always rejoices at the victory of the spring sun. When fast-paced dances were performed. People rejoiced. They began to create art. They were close to us. Perhaps they were singing. And their songs were heard across the lake and in every island. The silhouettes of the boats rushed across the lake'. (quoted from N. K. Rerikh, 'The Joy of Art', Sobranie sochinenii. Kniga pervaia [Collection of works. The first book], Moscow, 1914, pp. 140-141, 149-152).
Perhaps it was these very ideas and images that captured the artist’s imagination back in 1910 when he painted one of this most celebrated works devoted to the subject of prehistoric man: The Stone Age (Private collection, Moscow). In this significant, albeit moderately sized work, Roerich displays his understanding of the essence of prehistoric Man’s spiritual culture, which sought to create and bring together the powerful forces of the universe through the rituals of music, chanting and dancing. Of course, the most important of the power-deities being the Sun, the conductor of light, warmth and life itself.
The present lot brings together the most expressive characters created by Roerich for the interior majolica frieze The Stone Age. The North, which he painted in 1904 for Princess Maria Tenisheva’s estate in Talashkino close to Smolenksoye, and which he went on to further develop in 1910. The painting is filled with the light of the setting sun, from which emanates a golden glow across the sky, the surface of the lake, the yellow sand of the shore, the trunks of the dwarf pines, the stiff fur coats of the dancers and spectators and the leather covers of their dwellings. In the warmth of this stunning sunset, humanity experiences the ecstatic union of the interwoven elements of air, earth, water and fire.
Subsequently, the artist returned on numerous occasions to the various elements and cultural variations of the Stone Age, from the Slavic and Ugro-Finnish roots of the Russian North to the Native American Southwest. For Roerich, the mystical pantheism of prehistoric man never lost its appeal. In his essays he asserts: 'Art is universal. The revelations it brings, through hieroglyphs’ ancient understanding of beauty, through the kingdom of stone… […] Back then they had made huge revelations, the likes of which we are not destined to understand today' (quoted from N. K. Rerikh, 'Obrashchenie k kamniu [Appeal to the stone]', Ogonek, St Petersburg, 1908, no. 25).
The Call of the Sun is indisputably Roerich’s most important painting on this subject. It was painted in Karelia in 1919, during the artist’s nearly two-years long semi-seclusion in the Northern region’s harsh climate, at a time when major political upheavals were taking place back in his home country. The artist contextualised and encapsulated his entire life journey and artistic development in a cycle of monumental and symbolic canvasses, one of which includes The Call of the Sun. In essence, it is a version which further develops the subject of The Stone Age from 1910, however, the painting has been substantially revised and elevated to an epic monumental canvas.
Roerich has drastically increased the dimensions of the composition, which in turn has allowed him to further refine the characters’ features. He also changed the setting from a sunset to an early sunrise, capturing the moment when the sun is about to soar above the horizon line. As a result, the ritual unfolding before us is not only a moment of veneration and welcoming, but also the calling of the light-deity, which facilitates and therefore ensures the deity's ascension to the firmament.
The misty haze which envelops the sky and the lake adds a sacred sense of mystery to the canvas, as if the entire world is re-emerging from nothingness. Moreover, thanks to the magical ritual in the foreground, Roerich creates an illusion that the curtain of fog is dispersing towards the rising sun, the rays of which fill the space from the other side. The colourful combination of yellow, pink and light blue in the sky at dawn reflect on the still surface of the lake with the soft gleam of its rich, deep tones, adding a unique charm to the canvas. The painting’s fascinating subject engages us and urges us to reflect on the mystery of existence and humanity’s involvement in the latter. It is likely that this is exactly what Roerich had in mind when he wrote: 'One day we will learn much more about the Stone Age. We will understand and fully appreciate that period of time. It will reveal much more to us once we understand its essence, and communicate what is still occasionally recalled by Indian and shamanic wisdom' (quoted in N. K. Rerikh, 'Radost' iskusstva [The joy to art]’, Sobranie sochinenii [The collection of works], Moscow, 1914, pp. 140-141, 149-153.
We are grateful to Gvido Trepša, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York for his assistance in cataloguing this work and to Dmitry Popov, Curator and Collection Manager at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, for providing this catalogue note.