The Museum Around the Corner
A Blue and White reporter visits the Roerich Museum
By Will Holt
Despite its proximity to Columbia, the University acts as though Nicholas Roerich Museum doesn’t exist.
The museum—housed in an elegant brownstone on West 107th Street—is not mentioned on the University website’s list of neighborhood attractions. Nor does it appear on Professor Andrew Dolkart’s self-guided walking tour of Morningside Heights. Nevertheless, the ten-minute stroll down Riverside Drive is well worth taking. (Moreover, admission to the Roerich Museum is free.)
The museum’s director, Daniel Entin, contacted Columbia several years ago in an attempt to raise awareness among students, only to be rebuffed.
“They told me, ‘Oh, no, you’re too far south,’” Entin said. “We don’t promote anything below 110th.’”
The museum holds approximately 200 works of art, nearly every one of them by Roerich, a Russian-born painter who worked in the first half of the twentieth century and cultivated the reputation of a sage.
The number of careers he adopted and continents he traversed would seem astounding for any single person. Known primarily as an artist, Roerich’s contributions range from archaeology to literature to peacemaking among other far-flung fields of interest. He designed the stage and costumes for the debut production of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Roerich was born in late-19th century St. Petersburg, though his travels brought him to landscapes as disparate as New York City and the Himalayas. It was in the latter destination that he was able to realize his vision most completely. Having moved his family to India’s Kullu Valley in 1928, the mountains became his muse.
Entin, who has spent about 30 years with the museum, insists that the collection holds a peculiar sort of magic. “I walked in the front door one day and got ensnared,” he told me. “It’s about the interrelatedness of things, the interdependence of things. So you might say this is a place for idealists.”
Entin’s initial astonishment is understandable given the breadth and diversity of the collection, which includes a number of icons and literary texts. The common thread running through all of Roerich’s work appears to be a kind of universalist spirituality, a fundamental belief in the unity of all faiths—”New Age” before New Age.
“He promoted the unity of all religions,” said Entin. “The fundamental concepts of all religions are the same [for Roerich]—it’s just the words that are different.”
Many of the paintings contained within the Roerich museum are done in luminous tempera on textured canvas. Even his landscapes appear to humming with an ethereal energy.
“Everything is alive in Roerich’s work,” Entin observed. “He tried to show that in his paintings. In his mountains, the rocks are alive.”
Other works portray the founding moments of the world’s great religions. One painting shows Moses bent over flat rock, rather suggestively carving out the Ten Commandments. Another depicts the prophet Muhammad being visited by the angel Gabriel. “I’m worried that someday somebody’s going to walk in here and drive a knife through it,” said Entin, only half joking.
The museum also holds regular poetry readings and musical performances. “We hold these concerts in furtherance of Roerich’s idea to help the creative poet,” said Entin. “There’s this notion that’s hard to understand for people these days that beauty can save the world.”
When I asked Entin what effect he hoped the museum would have on its visitors, he paused for a moment and smiled. “That every once in a while someone will walk in the front door and burst into tears,” he said. “That’s what I want.”