In this presentation I show the Russian painter Nikolaj Rerix (1874–1947) as unique among Western artists who have represented “the East.” It is a familiar motif in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting: artists as well known as Ingres and Delacroix had presented “the Orient” to their Western public as early as the 1830s. As a painter on Indian themes and someone who wrote about Indian culture, Rerix’s interpretation is one of the few that reflects true respect and appreciation, a willingness to listen to and even learn from the East.
My perspective on this intersection of cultures is also somewhat unique: among specialists in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature and culture, I am a native of the Indian subcontinent and bring that experience to bear on the question of Rerix’s authenticity and sensitivity to the original.
I rely on Edward Said’s 1978 “Orientalism” as the seminal critique of the European perception of the Orient, showing the colonialist ideological subtext of European literary and artistic representations of the East (as irrational, erotic, carnal, and dark). Unlike the Orientalists (Gustave Moreau, Delacroix, and Leon Gerome among others) who emphasized in their paintings only this romanticized aspect of the East, its exotic and sensual qualities, Rerix’s interpretive conception of the “national soul” (or “spirit”) looks beyond the obvious and superficial, seeking the inner essence. It is a refreshing break from the traditional Western perspective: he saw India not through the eyes of a stranger charmed by its pagan lore and mystery, but as a visionary and kindred spirit who lived and died there.
I will discuss Rerix’s writings on India as the “national soul,” and present his paintings Mountain Peaks and The Royal Monastery (1936) and The Himalayas (1939), comparing them to other well-known “Orientalist” art. Rerix introduces an unfamiliar India: valued for its repository of spirituality and mysticism, but not as an exotic sideshow for voyeurs, or a glittering prize for imperialists.