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...«Теперь вы захватите часть Гоби»,— кричит Д[митриев]. Погружаемся в молочную пустыню. Начинается шамаль. Засыпает глаза. Превращаемся в желтую массу.
...С вечера звенели цикады. Высоко стояла сверкающая луна. Пахла трава. Но в два часа ночи ударил буран. Именно ударил. Налетел, как дракон. И заревел грозно до утра. Палатка вся встрепенулась. Пришлось приготовиться на случай отлета шатра. А утром опять жемчужная Гоби-пустыня. Перламутр и опал, и тусклый сапфир сверху.
212. ROERICH, NICHOLAS (1874-1947)
The Black Gobi, numbered 'N56' on the stretcher.
Tempera on canvas, 74.5 x 117.5 cm.
Provenance: The Roerich Museum, New York, 1929-1935.
The Louise and Nettie Horch collection, 1935-1978.
Private collection, USA, 1978-1992.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibited: The Roerich Museum, New York (permanent collection), until 1935.
The Roerich Museum, Riverside, New York, on loan from the late 1980s to early 1990s.
Literature: Roerich Museum Catalogue, 8th ed., New York, Roerich Museum, 1930, p. 37, p. 56, b/w illustration.
Nicholas Roerich returned to the harsh Gobi desert several times, drawn there in his search for the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, artistic impressions, and archaeological and scientific discoveries. The artist first visited the Gobi in the spring of 1927 on his most eventful expedition to Central Asia.
The route taken by Roerich’s Trans-Himalayan expedition ran from Urgi, today’s Ulan Baator, to Tibet. When the caravan set off on the sunny spring day of 13 April 1927, no-one anticipated the drama that would ensue. In early October, when they had already completed the greater part of the journey and were only 8–14 days from Lhassa, the mysterious capital of Tibet, the expedition was halted by Tibetan warriors. The caravan was detained and all the members of the expedition were arrested. Held in the mountains for five long months, they were forced to live through a terrible winter, with fierce blizzards, penetrating icy winds, heavy frosts, hunger and disease. They lost five members of the expedition and almost all their animals.
Despite these losses, the other members of the expedition survived the terrible winter. The Tibetan authorities finally released the caravan, but the travellers were not permitted to enter Lhassa. Roerich and his companions then set off towards India and by late May 1928 reached Darjeeling. Here in North-East India, in the valley of the great Brahmaputra river, the Europeans accompanying the expedition were to leave Elena and Nicholas Roerich.
Despite all the difficulties encountered on this great journey, Roerich made many sketches of the mountains and villages along the entire route, often without getting out of the saddle. Later, after his return to the USA, he confessed: “Of course, my main ambition as an artist was to do my artistic work. It is difficult to imagine when I will be able to express all my experiences in my work — so abundant are these gifts of Asia…”
But the artist did succeed almost immediately in expressing his memories from the Gobi desert — some of the strongest of this journey. A first series of canvases appeared in 1928, dedicated, in Roerich’s words, “to the endless Central Gobi, its white, pink, blue and graphite black colour”. This cycle includes The Black Gobi presented here for auction.
Roerich’s first encounter with the desert occurred on the twelfth day of the expedition when the travellers reached Yumbeis, from where they continued on camels, “as it was impossible to go any further in the automobiles. The Gobi desert, or Shamo as they call it here, lay before us to the south”. The Mongolian name means a desolate, arid, barren place. The desert is situated on a low plateau, about a thousand metres above sea level and occupies about one third of Mongolia as well as the northern provinces of China. Flat, as boundless as the blue sky stretching above it, the Gobi creates the impression of a still ocean — a black trail, flashing in the sun, recedes into the distance; on the horizon the crests of distant mountain ridges rise up like waves. There is almost no sand in the Gobi; clay and stone deserts cover vast areas. Almost everywhere the earth is covered with a carpet of small black pebbles, scorched by the desert sun. The sky here is a penetrating blue throughout the year, and these two colours, black or blue, are the dominant colours of the Gobi.
The arid, uninhabitable central Gobi desert is mentioned in ancient myths as the birth place of our civilisation. It is here where according to theosophists and mystical texts the holy kingdom and Shambhala is located.
In his diaries Roerich repeats many times these words about the desert: “Many prophecies are buried everywhere. Seek the entrance to secret underground vaults in the sand dunes”, as the “forbidden border lands of Shambhala” lie somewhere hidden from the world in the Gobi desert.
Visible signs of the proximity of Shambhala are also captured in The Black Gobi. The artist skilfully depicted the rock massifs receding into the distance and huge menhir stones scattered on them. Boldly juxtaposing unexpected planes of colour, Roerich makes us perceive his painting as an embodiment of compressed time. Seeking lofty heights far removed from the earthly events overwhelming his compatriots, the artist rejects the European view of history and conception of time and space, and sees his own landscape from the distant heights of the cosmos. His mountains are waves of matter and time. Light is not painted from nature, radiating from the sun; it is diffused in an even, mystical glow. The creation of this decorative image also owes much to the special technique used by the artist. Roerich painted his landscapes in tempera over a ground of contrasting colour, creating an illusion of luminescence, depth and transparency in the material itself. The landscape is completely desolate, but the artist draws the viewer’s gaze away, focusing both on the lilac-coloured peaks and domed sky with the crescent moon, always lying on its back at these latitudes, and on the stone in the foreground covered with Kalachakra symbols. It is this stone that emphasises the philosophical subtext of the work, its symbolism and poetry, and the image of man’s eternal striving for knowledge and beauty. As a Tibetan monk Roerich met on his journey told him about these symbols, “truly, only through Shambhala, only through the Kalachakra teachings can one find the shortest path to perfection”.
When Roerich arrived in the United States on his return from the Central Asian expedition in June 1928, he was received by President Hoover at the White House. Hoover enquired about the outcome of the expedition and was presented with one of the paintings Roerich had brought back from his journey, The Himalayas. Soon after the Roerich Museum was opened and Roerich’s canvases inspired by the expedition were exhibited there. After seeing the exhibition, Albert Einstein wrote to Roerich in a letter dated 29 January 1931: “I am sincerely delighted by your art and can say without exaggeration that no landscapes have ever made such a profound impression on me as these paintings”.
* * *
Painted sometime between June 1928 and May 1929, The Black Gobi is one of several large canvases that epitomizes Nicholas Roerich’s experiences in the Mongolia–Tibet part of his three-year expedition in Central Asia. In April 1927, the expedition left the capital of Mongolia, aiming to reach Lhassa via a direct route from north to south. A large part of the journey crossed the Gobi desert, and in his travel diary Roerich wrote: “Limitless seems the Central Gobi. White–pink–blue–and slaty black.” (Nicholas Roerich. Altai-Himalaya. Connecticut: Arun Press, 1983, p. 355).
From Roerich’s son George’s account of the expedition, we find that they started to cross the “black” part of the Gobi on May 7th. The following lines may well correspond to the place that we see in the painting: “How majestic are the dawn and sunset in the desert! Suddenly the shades of the sunset sparkle with deep purple and the immense plain glows with a purple glare. A few seconds more of intense glitter and the colors fade away and the vast expanse of the desert plunges into a violet darkness... Toward eleven o’clock the moon rises and lights with its soft bluish light the desert.” (George Roerich. Trails to Inmost Asia. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1931, p. 208).
The crossing of the black Gobi was extremely hard and exhausting: “A burning hot day follows the quiet starry night. It is difficult to imagine the burning heat that emanates from the stony surface of the desert... On all sides stretches the same black kingdom of stone.” (Trails, p. 208–209). Moreover, the expedition was under constant threat of a bandit attack. We see none of those hardships in the painting, however, as Roerich focuses entirely on nature’s austere beauty, even in such a rigid and lifeless place. The only indications of human life — the ornamented obelisks — suggest a mythic past and the realm of the dead. These “kereksurs” (old graves) do not appear in the passages describing the black Gobi crossing, but Roerich mentions elsewhere that the Gobi abounds in them. The artist wraps the obelisks and mountain ranges in eerie moonlight, capturing a moment that George calls the “dead heart of Asia.”
We are grateful to Gvido Trepљa, senior researcher at the Roerich Museum, New York, for providing this note.