This week, H.P. Lovecraft’s favourite non-magazine artist, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). As seen in The New York Times Magazine, 1st September 1929, as the article “Gods and Men in Storied India” (the northern Punjab). This is the only version online and is just about readable if you squint, but the rest of the article is not available.
From the same year, free as a PDF on Archive.org, his own book Altai-Himalaya: a travel diary, by Nicholas Roerich; with twenty reproductions from paintings, evoking and recording horseback journeys from 1924 to 1928 through the immense spaces and places of Asia, with the Altai Mountains being visited in 1926. This is the high bio-region where four nations now meet, China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. It seen just before modernity and collectivisation, and the start of deforestation and the environmental damage wrought by socialism.
One wonders if Lovecraft read the book. But there is no Roerich book listed in Lovecraft’s Library. It seems like the sort of book that the budding ethnographer Barlow would have valued and taken away. Of course, it could also have been read from the Public Library. Roerich was then very famous, and there was no reason the Providence Public Library would not have stocked it.
If Lovecraft had picked up Roerich’s 1929 book a little late, in the early 1930s, and read as far as the 1926 “Altai” chapter then he would have been reading history. Wikipedia’s page on the Altai curiously skips the 1930s, but according to the reliable The Former Soviet Union’s Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook and other sources, under communism the Altai people were sent to small reserves in the south of the region, and by 1930 vast numbers of Slavs had been shipped in as part of a deliberate population-replacement strategy. In 1933 the Altai alphabet was banned, and the Altai religion was deemed an anti-Soviet conspiracy. The Altai who still remained outside the reserves were forced to settle and collectivise. During the war Stalin’s paranoia deemed them “pro-Japanese”. The post-war Soviet ‘Virgin Lands campaign’ brought gigantic collectivised farms to the region — 50 million acres of it went under the plough to grow the wheat needed to buy revolution and terror around the world. The Altai people were reduced to barely 20% of the population. Just a few years after his death in 1947, here and elsewhere in the high places of Asia, Roerich’s mid-1920s Shangri-la was gone.
Roerich’s 1920s ‘travel for painting’ diary book is fronted with a fine portrait of the man Lovecraft may have briefly talked with or seen on some of his many visits to Roerich’s New York City gallery. He would have been in his mid 50s by that time, then deemed ‘old’ by the male life-expectancy of the time.
…good old Nick Roerich, whose joint at Riverside Drive and 103rd Street is one of my shrines in the pest zone [New York City]” — Lovecraft letter to James F. Morton, March 1937.
Note that Roerich’s long expedition to Asia appears to have left New York City in March 1925, so after that date during the ‘New York City period’ Lovecraft would not have met or glimpsed Roerich in his Gallery. It’s quite possible the departure was covered by the cinema newsreels, though, and Lovecraft may have seen him on the screen.
Also new on Archive.org. “Nicholas Roerich and Science”, an article extracted from Art and Archaeology, May 1930. This presents an overview of the explorations and papers by Roerich that Lovecraft might have known by 1929, if only through personal discussion or press reports.