Blake Gopnik on the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

NEW YORK -- Hail a cab to the Nicholas Roerich Museum, and the driver has to ask for the address.

Stand at the busy corner of Broadway and 107th Street, half a block from the museum, and ask 10 locals about it, and you hear basically the same answer 10 times. "Never heard of it." "Don't know it." "Nope."

Talk to cultured friends who've lived for years near the museum -- ask experts across the length and breadth of the art world -- and you still don't score a hit.

Buried in a little mansion that's seen better days, this may be the most obscure art museum in a city of obscure museums. Eighty years ago, however, this man whom no one's heard of was one of the most famous artists in the country. He rated a purpose-built, 29-story skyscraper, with whole floors for his museum, and a Roerich institute and lodgings for disciples.

"Nicholas Roerich is an international figure. Not only is he a painter, but a scientist, a writer, poet and an archaeologist as well. . . . Beauty, which is the unifier of all nations, is the warp and woof of his paintings, too." That was how things stood on Sept. 7, 1930, when Ada Rainey, this newspaper's art critic, wrote about the 55-year-old Russian emigre. She was reviewing a show of more than 1,000 of Roerich's paintings, on display in the newly opened Roerich tower.

That same day, Rainey gave rather less space to another interesting new museum. It was called the Museum of Modern Art.

The gorgeous art deco skyscraper is still there, at Riverside Drive and 103rd Street, though it has been turned into an apartment building. Its museum is now tucked into the middle of a block at the far west end of 107th Street, in a Victorian pile with linoleum-covered stairs and scruffy carpet over patches of its old oak floors. The museum's 200 works by Roerich -- of the 7,000 or more he made -- splash gaudy color across the cracking plaster, with images of wild mystic lands as far apart as Everest in Tibet and Mount Hira in Arabia, by way of Sinai and the Russian woods. Roerich used them as backdrops for Krishna, Muhammad and Saint Sergius the Builder, along with most of the world's other stars of otherworldliness.

The museum has a staff of four. Its 82-year-old director, Daniel Entin, has had the job since 1983. For his appointment with a journalist, he wears chunky old sandals and socks, black chinos and a safari vest. The museum is hardly a thriving concern, but somehow Entin has a kind of Zen-like -- or maybe Roerichian -- peace about matters.

How many people visit? Pause. "We've never worked up a number for that -- maybe 200 a week." What are his ambitions for the museum? Deep thought. "To reach out to people outside of a narrow class of museum-goers." Where does the funding come from? More contemplation. "We've learned to live on very little -- which is almost un-American." There's a small Roerich foundation that pays the basic bills, Entin says, and then there are occasional gifts from members around the globe -- as little as a dollar, sometimes as much as several thousand. "For them it's a kind of tithing."

Roerich's pull on his latter-day supporters has become as much religious as aesthetic. "Most of the people who are interested in Roerich are not art lovers -- for them, these are all message paintings," Entin says. "And because the message is great, the paintings are great. . . . I've seen people walk in here and burst into tears."

All these decades after Roerich's death in 1947, Agni Yoga, the mystical movement he founded in the 1920s with his wife, Elena -- under the guidance of long-dead masters from the theosophical Beyond -- still promises to let acolytes "penetrate beyond the limits of the physical realm into the worlds of fine energies, into other dimensions of multidimensional psychospiritual space." At least that's how it's explained in a recent academic essay by two Russian devotees, Lev Mironovich Gindilis, a "full member of the Russian Academy of Space Travel," and Viktor Vasilevich Frolov, "head of the philosophy department at the Moscow State Forestry University."

Of course, those two scholars go deeper than that easy overview: "At the beginning of each cycle of manifestation," they helpfully explain, "the interaction of fire (Spirit) with Unmanifest Pregenetic Matter (or Prefiery Substance) gives rise to the Prime Fiery Substance, Spiritualized Matter, or spirit-matter."

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