The mystic and the dictator

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

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 13

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.)

In early 1935, Roerich offered his Banner of Peace to Generalissimo Chiang. With its distinctive Pax Cultura logo, which became the emblem of the Roerich Pact and the International Day of Culture, the presentation of the banner was a call to arms in defense of China’s cultural heritage.

“This was more than a symbolic gesture,” writes the Russian historian Alexandre Andreyev in his book The Myth of the Masters Revived: The Occult Lives of Nikolai and Elena Roerich. “General Chiang was fighting with the ‘red’ Chinese troops and needed to be reminded of the importance of preserving his nation’s great cultural treasures in wartime.”

Referring to the Chiang’s launch of the New Life Movement, designed to reawaken traditional Confucian values, Andreyev says Roerich saw Chiang as “a potential ally.”


Yet these ulterior motives remained clandestine.

“Roerich was sent to China by the US Government to study the drought-resistant grass,” says Gvido Tripsa, director of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. “Therefore, he kept all his political activities secret and no information in this regard was sent back to Washington.”

Still, Roerich continued to correspond with Chiang, receiving a written promise from the Generalissimo to abide by the provisions of the artist’s nascent pact. With the Sino-Japanese War breaking out soon after, Chiang moved more than 15,000 crates of objects from Beijing’s National Palace Museum to locations in Sichuan and Guizhou before finally ferrying them to Taiwan in three main shipments between December 1948 and February 1949.

Of course, a cynical view might hold that rapacity, hardly in short supply among the KMT, rather than patriotic duty, was behind the desperate concern for this priceless bounty.

“Fortune was with us; not so much as a teacup was broken,” the National Palace Museum’s first director Han Lih-wu (杭立武) told the New York Times in 1986. By most accounts this is true. What remains unknown is the level of shrinkage that occurred en route.

For all his monumental character failings, though, Chiang did care about China’s cultural heritage. But, as Andreyev notes, the Generalissimo had his hands full. Persistent nudging by the likes of Roerich surely played a part in ensuring the safety of the treasures.

But not everyone is convinced.

“The kind of intellectual monument they build over the Roerich family is just too much,” says Hakan Wahlqvist, keeper of the Sven Hedin Foundation in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Of a presentation he attended at the International Center of the Roerichs (ICR) in Moscow, Wahlqvist recalls: “A professor from Moscow eulogized the Roerichs ... For the first time I then heard about ‘The Pact,’ but I have never heard anyone talk about it since. If it were of any value to UNESCO, they should surely pay attention to it.”

Even Andreyev is skeptical of Roerich’s motives and the “blatant masquerading by a megalomaniacal artist.” He quotes the Sinologist Boris Pankratov — a figure perhaps even more enigmatic than Roerich — who refers to Roerich's desire to become the king of the mythical Buddhist Kingdom of Shambhala, who would “bring salvation to mankind and become the world ruler.

In Russia, claims of cult-like activity against the ICR were cited as a justification for state seizure of the Moscow museum’s premises and confiscation of its works in 2017. With the ICR reporting vandalism and damage, one can only imagine how Roerich would have felt.

Obsessed with ancient culture, as well as his transcendental role in its preservation, Roerich was tireless in his endeavors. For a brief moment in war-torn China, his interests coincided with those of its failing leader. For Sinophiles, art lovers or indeed anyone concerned with cultural heritage, this meeting of minds was a blessing.