The dozen or so versions of 'Study of Mountains' represent Russian painter Nicholas Roerich's mystical visions of the Himalaya peaks at their starkest, barest essence: planes and textures of dizzying color and light. They command the strange fascination of primordial, never-before-seen landscapes.
These paintings are part of a staggering body of work: Roerich painted the Himalayas hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand times, besides writing extensively about their landscape, cultures and religions, and founding a research institute devoted to their study. In the 1920s he undertook an Asian expedition of several years, traversing the Himalayas on all sides, before settling in Naggar, in the Kullu valley, India. He was also the originator of the Roerich Pact, symbolized by the Banner of Peace, an international treaty to protect cultural treasures.
From his early work inspired by Russian Orthodox iconography, many of Roerich's paintings depict religious scenes, and his later work reflects his growing fascination for Eastern religions, as well as his search for a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. In the 'Banners of the East' series (1924), for instance, he treated religious and mythological figures from different Eurasian traditions, including 'Tsong-kha-pa', 'Laozi', 'Mohammed the Prophet' and 'Mother of the World'.
His Himalaya paintings often show remote monasteries and solitary pilgrims, heightening the landscape's grandeur and austerity through the contrast with these puny figures and precarious man-made structures. (Besides, in the early 20th century they also had documentary value. Many of his paintings depict real places, actual peaks and passes, and along with his writings served as records of his expeditions.)
But increasingly the explicitly religious symbols seem to become details in the vast empty landscape - an inscription scratched on rock, a temple ruin on a mountain top, a divine shape in a cloud. The mountains themselves now become the subjects of devotion, as Roerich attempts to capture the original awe from which religions sprang.
Thus the series of 'Study of Mountains' can be seen as a kind of culmination of his Himalaya fascination: 'emptied', leaving all human presence behind, concentrating purely on the timeless, forbidding landscape with its jagged peaks, velvety slopes and giddy colors.
Their execution is minimalistic as well. These works were done in tempera on cardboard, and - hard to see on reproductions - often the rough grey board shows through the paint, or it's even left bare to create the texture and shading of sheer mountain rock. In a way they're also studies of color, variations of the typical Roerich palette with no green and slightly jarring blue and pink and orange, and with that striking brightness that reminds of the color explosions in Tibetan art, which always seem the result of the lack of oxygen at such high altitude.
Still, the peculiar power of these paintings is difficult to describe. In his classic horror story 'At the Mountains of Madness' (1931), H.P. Lovecraft repeatedly refers to "the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich", appropriating that "something hauntingly Roerich-like" for his own "mountainous mystery".
Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Roerich, declared: "When a picture is great we should not be able to say what it is, and yet we should see it and know."
While Roerich himself wrote in a poem titled 'In Vain' (1918):
Unresponsive, the stones stand dumb.
Cold in the meadows they glisten and
Shimmer. Cold are the clouds.
They fold themselves in a furrow. They pass
Into the endless. They know, they are silent,