Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 13 News List

The mystic and the dictator

The National Palace Museum’s debt to Russian painter Nicholas Roerich

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

Nicholas Roerich, St Panteleimon the Healer (detail, 1916).

Photo: James Baron

Aside from some low-key events in Europe and Latin America, yesterday’s Universal Day of Culture passed in the same way as previous installments: unremarked. Despite the lack of fanfare, the mind behind this occasion played a role in protecting some of the world’s most valuable artifacts, including the treasures at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.

Established on April 15, 1935 to coincide with the signing of the Roerich Pact, an agreement that seeks to protect cultural objects during wartime, the Universal Day of Culture is dedicated to “the full appreciation of all national and universal treasures of culture.”

The culmination of decades devoted to defending the arts by the Russian painter and mystic Nicholas Roerich, the pact and the day marking it laid the foundations for UNESCO protocols on cultural property.

As early as 1903, Roerich had penned reflections on the sorry state of Russia’s architectural heritage. His paintings of historical sites during travels that year provide the only visual evidence of some of the lost buildings from those locations. The following year Roerich formalized his views in a report to Russia’s architectural society, headed by Tsar Nicholas II. Having achieved international renown for the set and costume designs of Stravinsky’s 1913 controversial ballet The Rite of Spring, Roerich brought his burgeoning heft to the political sphere with the outbreak of World War I. He lobbied the Russian military and the Allies on the dangers posed to art and architecture and, in 1915, provided the Tsar with another report on the need for action.


Subsequently petitioning governments worldwide on the establishment of laws to safeguard cultural heritage, Roerich cultivated relationships with leaders such as India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and US Vice President Henry Wallace. However, much less well-documented is his meeting and subsequent correspondence with Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). Interaction between the pair was fleeting but evidence suggests Roerich helped save the tens of thousands of objects that followed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in their relocations around China and, ultimately, to Taiwan.

Roerich was foremost a spiritualist drawn to Eastern religions and alternative belief systems such as theosophy, under the influence of his wife Helena. He has a vision for world peace, which began with the creation of a spiritual union between Asia and Russia. To this end, in 1923, he embarked on a long and arduous expedition to Inner Asia. Remarkably, given the contemporaneous Communist repression of artists and intelligentsia, the trip received state sanction. This was perhaps partly due to Roerich’s offer to spy on the British in India and his suggestion that any future commonwealth would exist under Soviet guidance. All things to all men, Roerich meanwhile cast the trip as an artistic endeavor in international media.

Five years later, he led a second expedition to Manchuria, funded by US Department of Agriculture of which Wallace was then head. Despite the supposedly scientific purpose, Roerich’s motives were again neither singular nor clear-cut. Stopping in Beijing, he hobnobbed with White Russian exiles and Oriental scholars such as Sven Hedin, the Swedish geographer and explorer, who led the Sino-Swedish Expedition of 1927 to 1935. (As a fascinating sidenote, artifacts from this series of explorations found their way to Taipei when the Library of Congress in Washington mistakenly transferred them to the “wrong” China at the end of the Chinese Civil War. They are currently housed at Academia Sinica.)

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