“Someone 1917”: Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Nicholas Roerich

I can’t recall whose portrait, and by whom, this visitor is photographing. However, the painting to the right of it is the 1917 portrait of the Russian Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky by another famous Futurist, David Burliuk. (Here’s another image of Kamensky by Burliuk, from 1916.) The painting on the left must be this portrait, also dating from 1917.

I believe I first saw it in a journal as a child and my first reaction was, “who is this, Lenin?” Two weeks ago, I had the same reflex at an art exhibit. It is, of course, a portrait of the painter Nicholas Roerich (Nikolai Rerikh) by Boris Grigoriev. It is probably worth adding that Grigoriev, who fled by boat to Finland from St. Petersburg in 1919, continued to paint until the late 1930s, but was underappreciated in Soviet Russia even in the 1970s and the 1980s, when émigré artists were no longer seen a pariahs. Nevertheless, his portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold (the last two images on this page), if I remember correctly, was  much reproduced in Soviet times, as part of the Russian Museum’s collection.

As for Nicholas Roerich, I’m tempted to ascribe his pseudo-Leninesque appearance to Grigoriev’s prescience of that family’s – mostly Elena Roerich’s – bizarre attempt to link Leninism and Buddhism, a few years after the revolution. But that would obviously be facile and superficial. Grigoriev’s work stands out in the long row of Roerich portraits, a class of its own compared with the earlier images by Golovin and Kustodiev, with David Burliuk’s NYC painting and drawing (1929) and with the numerous portraits of their father painted by Sviatoslav and Yuri, Nicholas’ sons.

[Update.] This post includes a better reproduction of the 1917 portrait (and a lot of other Grigoriev works): scroll down – it’s right above Rachmaninov. One imagines the artist – the subject – was caught in a moment of uncertainty, indecision, introspection (so he’s avoiding eye contact), at a crossroads perhaps, unlike his later depictions as a Himalayan sage.

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