Tale of two artists

Tale of two artists

Tale of two artists

Nicholas Roerich and Edmund Thomas Clint were born in different eras and pursued diverse artistic journeys, writes    

Nicholas Roerich is the Russian-born painter, traveller and philosopher, who made India his spiritual home, and created hundreds of paintings, particularly of the Himalayas, also came to be known as a self-proclaimed guardian of world peace and culture. Winner of several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, he died on December 13, 1947 at the age of 73 in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh.

Even after six-and-a-half decades of his death, Roerich continues to draw attention in some quarters of the art and academic world. The release of Nicholas Roerich: A Quest and A Legacy recently is a case in point.

On the other hand, Edmund Thomas Clint did not live long enough to celebrate his seventh birthday. That did not prevent him from producing no less than 25,000 drawings, sketches and paintings on a variety of themes and subjects. The Limca Book of Records (1990) reportedly described Clint as “the most prolific child artist who created more than 25,000 pictures in a 2,300-day life.”

Clint, whose work shows remarkable visualisation, rare maturity and sophistication, died on April 15, 1983 in Kochi. Among Clint’s many admirers was Malayalam poet and Jnanpith awardee O N V Kurup, who hailed him as a genius among artists, not just among child artists. A Brief Hour of Beauty by Ammu Nair is a poignant biography of the artist who died young.

Art & politics

Edited by writer and art historian Manju Kak, Nicholas Roerich: A Quest and A Legacy, is an elegantly designed book with a foreword by Dr Karan Singh, and an introduction by Kak. The book comprises academic essays by historian Madhavan K Palat (Nicholas Roerich: Artist and Messaiah); Suchandana Chatterjee (Glimpses of Inner Asia); Indologist and Director General of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in Moscow, L V Shaposhnikova (A Caravan in Time and Space); Head and Convener, Department of Indo-Tibetan Studies, Visva-Bharati, Andrea Loseries (Luminosity and the Natural Mind); and historian A V Stecenko (The Central Asian Expedition). The book also features a number of ‘box stories’ about the artist’s life and times. The most eye-catching part of the book is made up of a number of colour plates of Roerich’s work.

The articles extol Roerich’s role as an energetic expeditionist, spiritual visionary and nature painter. His daring and well-documented Himalayan expeditions in India, Tibet and Mongolia brought him glory and attention; these outings also resulted in a large number of paintings of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayan regions.

Awash with bright colours and solid lines, these pictorial and metaphysical paintings don’t just show the painter’s love of nature, but also his pursuit of spiritual understanding.

While the modern day viewer could find Roerich’s paintings to be a bit flashy, sugary and scheming, it is true that they attracted a sizeable group of admirers. “Roerich attracted a devoted band of followers and the sect continues to flourish in our times,” writes Palat adding, “We may or may not be drawn to it, but it gives meaning to that sparkling artistic output and permits us to enjoy it all the more.”

Palat feels that Roerich was a product wholly of his times. “He pursued his quixotic ambition of establishing that earthly paradise as a territorial state in the unpromising emptiness between Siberia and the Himalayas, just as so many of his contemporaries hoped to found their socialist paradise in the equally unpromising territory of underdeveloped Russia.”

Apart from its essentially academic tone and admiring content, the book provides a few insights into Roerich’s life and thoughts, which impacted his art. Suchandana Chatterjee speaks of Roerich’s search for ‘lost cities’ and ‘secret lands’ of Eurasia; of his correct sense of the uncertainties and ambiguities in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the First World War; and of his seeming inclination towards alternative paradigms of anti-imperialism, Bolshevism, theosophy, pan-Mangolism and pan-Buddhism. In this background, she concludes that Roerich’s art-based expeditions also had other tags and “there are implications that Roerich was a political player in the highlands of Asia, who moved in and out of Soviet-dominated Mongolia (Outer Mongolia), Chinese-dominated Mongolia (Inner Mongolia) and British-influenced Tibet.”

The book makes a passing reference about how Louis Horch, a wealthy New York broker, who was Roerich’s close collaborator for more than a decade, ousted Roerich from his 29-storey skyscraper Museum in New York; and how in the 1930s, New York papers declared that Roerich was a spy and that the expedition he undertook under American patronage was a sham.

(For a more detailed if critical report on Roerich’s American links, one could visit www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1989/2/1989_2_92.shtml and peruse The New Deal and the Guru by Charles J Errico and J Samuel Walker about how Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture sent an eccentric Russian mystic on a sensitive mission to Asia, and thereby created diplomatic havoc, personal humiliation, and embarrassment for the administration).

All said and done, the myth of Roerich endures. On the one hand, his belief in both scientific and humanitarian thinking, and the pivotal role of culture in the evolutionary transformation of the world continues to seduce many. On the other, his ideas such as existence of the mythical kingdom of Shambala; efficacy of the Roerich Pact (for protecting cultural heritage), and one’s capacity to communicate with the spirits have often been dismissed with contempt. 

Child prodigy

Compared to the largely academic book on Roerich, Ammu Nair’s biography of Edmund Thomas Clint follows a simple and straightforward narrative. The only son of M T Joseph and Chinnamma Joseph, Clint was born on May 19, 1976 and got his last name thanks to his father being a fan of cowboy movies and Hollywood star Clint Eastwood.

Clint is said to have started drawing even as he crawled as a tiny tot; and when he was barely two, he was drawing perfect freehand circles on paper. As he grew up, he turned prolific and drew numerous images of fish, trains, cars, buses, flowers, birds and so on. “On some days, he drew as many as hundred drawings.

Clint had a ravenous desire to know the unbroken continuous meaning of everything around him. To him, drawing was more natural and organic than breathing.” His delighted parents encouraged him in his artistic pursuits. Nair, who was born in the same year as Clint, enthusiastically follows the artistic life of the young lad till the very end, when he succumbed to kidney disease.  

Clint’s paintings were first exhibited in 1984 in Ernakulum, and others followed. “The exhibitions have introduced more than a million visitors, including schools, to Clint’s world of colours and line drawings,” writes Nair. “In many instances, the organisers had to extend the closing date because of the number of art lovers that came pouring in to see the paintings of the artist prodigy. In torrential monsoon rains and blistering heat, people lined up forming serpentine queues that coiled across the parking lot and the sidewalk on the road.”

Nair’s narrative, though keen and keyed up, appears laboured and tedious in places. The real revelations of the book are Clint’s striking drawings and colourful paintings, which won him posthumous honour and recognition.

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