26 November 2014
The Doomed City, signed with the artist's monogram and dated 1914, further signed twice, once with initials, titled, inscribed in Cyrillic "1.000 rub./Dlya Moskvy/V Moskvu na Bel'giiskuyu vystavku" and numbered "229" on the reverse.
Tempera on cardboard, 51 by 75.5 cm.
Provenance: A present from the artist to Maxim Gorky, 1915.
Acquired by A. Hamann, Riga, before 2 January 1936.
Important Russian Art, Sotheby’s London, 28 November 2011, lot 7.
Acquired at the above by the present owner.
Private collection, Europe.
Exhibited: World of Art Exhibition, Petrograd, 28 February–29 March 1915. Nikolaja Rēriha Muzejs (Nicholas Roerich Museum), Riga, October–November 1937.
Literature: Lukomor’e, 25 December 1914, No. 32, p.16, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, World of Art Exhibition, Petrograd, 1915, No. 229, listed.
A. Gidoni, “Tvorchesky put’ Rerikha”, Apollon, 1915, No. 4–5, pp. 1–34, mentioned in the text, illustrated between pp. 26 and 27.
Yu. Baltrushaitis et al, Roerich, Petrograd, Svobodnoe Iskusstvo, 1916, p. 167, illustrated and listed; p. 224, listed.
S. Ernst, N.K. Roerich, Petrograd, Obshchina Svyatoi Evgenii, 1918, p. 102, mentioned in the text, p. 125, listed, pl. , illustrated.
A. Yaremenko, Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich. His Life and Creations During the Past Forty Years, 1889‒1929, New York, Central Book Trading Co., 1931, pl. 29, illustrated.
N. Roerich, Listy dnevnika, vol. 2, Moscow, International Centre of the Roerichs, 2000, p. 34, mentioned in the text.
Nicholas Roerich. Paintings from the Collection of the Latvian State Museum of Art, Riga, Uguns, 1999, p. xxix.
V. Knyazeva et al, Rerikh. Prorochestva, Samara, Agni, 2004, mentioned in the text.
Nicholas Roerich’s masterpiece The Doomed City is highly versatile in its symbolism, and managed to reflect the state of mind of modern society at the time so well, that every viewer who saw the painting could not help but respond to what is unfolding before him.
It is not possible to interpret the artist’s intended meaning outside of the social context of the time. At that time, Roerich himself experienced a major existential crisis, connected with the breakdown of all that represented deep philosophical and ideological values for him. The geopolitical crises and the concomitant collapse of cultural and humanistic foundations certainly deeply affected Roerich as an artist. Thus, the work offered here for auction, despite its metaphorical associations, is, first and foremost, an emotionally saturated and deeply-felt allegory for the power of human spirit and the inviolability of true values and ideals.
This magnificent work, with its impressive imagery and colours, has left an indelible mark not only in the cultural life of its contemporaneous society, but it continues to be reborn within historical, political and spiritual contexts, as well as continuing to delight and inspire awe. Over the years, it can be seen as acquiring a new, life-affirming meaning; conveying the deeply entrenched, universal belief that, no matter how strong or evil the enemy, goodness will triumph and defeat the “great serpent”, that menacing embodiment of the encroaching forces of darkness. Moreover, though the imagery of the Heavenly City, the idea of salvation through cultural and spiritual values is also emphasised.
This idea is further developed in Roerich’s next series, Sancta, represented here by the work And We Continue Fishing. Its main protagonists are monks who symbolise the primacy of the spiritual, while the rising sun personifies faith in the life-affirming power of Christianity. This work is in so many ways truly unique and can take one of the most honourable places in any respectable collection.
The Doomed City is one of several works painted by Nicholas Roerich shortly before the start of World War I. They have a strong current of foreboding, both in the dark colour palette and unsettling symbolic elements. When war broke out in July of 1914, the public and critics alike declared these works “prophetic.” Roerich himself described the impetus behind these works in his blank verse poem Dream:
“Before the war came dreams: We are crossing a field. Dark clouds over a hill. A Storm. There, piercing the cloud, like a flash of lighting hitting the ground, stands a fiery serpent. With many heads. Or: we are crossing a grey plain. A dark hill towers above. Another look, and it’s not a hill, but a serpent like a grey pillar twirling.
… Then, there were omens. Ignored. Dismissed. Overlooked. Trampled over by the masses. And, alas, awoke the serpent. Arose the enemy of mankind. Trying to conquer the world with malignant power. Destroy cities. Desecrate temples. Burn people and homes. Arose to meet his death.” (Yu. Baltrushaitis et al, Roerich, Petrograd, Svobodnoe iskusstvo, 1916, p. 191.) The vision of the serpent – Satan, the enemy of mankind – found its expression in the paintings The Doomed City, The Dead City, and Cry of the Serpent. The creature takes over the scene, encircling the city like a river of hot magma. Its skin is jewel-like amid the dreary grey tones of the landscape, holding the city, and our attention, hostage. But the blood red that glows under specks of blue foreshadows the blood of war, and the familiar outlines of a metropolis becomes a metaphor for the whole of Europe. As a contemporary critic noted: “The Doomed City is especially beautiful, both in concept and in execution – encircled by an enormous fiery serpent, under the spell of its evil, piercing eyes.” The tension between beauty and an undercurrent of violence is what makes this painting especially powerful.
The first owner of the painting was the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who selected it himself. In one of his diary leaves, Roerich described the occasion: “He was determined to have a painting by me. From those that I had at the time, he chose not some realistic landscape but one of the so-called 'pre-war’ series – The Doomed City, which was fitting for his poet’s nature.” (N. Roerich, Listy dnevnika, vol.2, Moscow, International Centre of the Roerichs, 2000, p. 34.) Gorky parted with it most likely during his stay in Italy during the 1920s. The next record of the painting is from a 1937 exhibition in the Roerich Museum in Riga, Latvia, for which it was lent by its new owner, Mr. Hamann. More recently, it surfaced in the auction world.
We are grateful to Gvido Trepša, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, for catalogue information.
Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.