Say, do you know which group of people is terrible? It’s polymaths. They’re a bunch of assholes. These overachieving Renaissance men and women make the rest of us look like sub-human layabouts by comparison.
Oh, what’s that, Ghost of Michelangelo? You weren’t content to sculpt a top-notch marble relief at age 16? You had to design the Laurentian Library, where Vasari said, “boldness and grace are equally conspicuous”? And then you spent the next half-century creating the most iconic sculpture and fresco in the Western canon? That’s great, except it makes you an insufferable braggart.
If you want to engineer buildings or paint or sculpt, fine. But doing all three is just tacky. It says, “I think I’m better than you because I made the statue of David and designed St. Peter’s Basilica and you spent 45 minutes yesterday trying to figure out how to play ‘Smooth Criminal’ on the guitar.”
Well, I’m unimpressed by a broad ouvre. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how many extracurricular activities you have on your application to Jerk University. It’s still Jerk University, and it’s still a shitty school.”
The Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a notable alum of JU. While wandering through Manhattan’s Roerich Museum recently, I asked a docent what was up with all the religious paintings—was the guy a mystic? The docent half-smiled and shook his head. “No, he was a scientist.”
A note to aspiring artist-scientists: no one likes a showoff. If you try to wear too many hats, your work will suffer and you’ll look like a fool because you’ll be wearing several hats. Besides, people will get jealous of your versatility and they’ll spread rumors about you being a Scientologist, so it’s best to focus on a single discipline and go with that. For instance, I sacrificed a promising career in the sciences (C+ in high school chemistry; physics in summer school) to focus on my Art. And the decision clearly paid dividends:
Roerich wasn’t content to be a mere scientist. Like Michelangelo and Dion Sanders, he was hell bent on making everyone else seem shiftless by producing a wide and profound body of work. Exhaustive research (the museum brochure and Wikipedia) reveals that Roerich studied at a fine arts academy while simultaneously pursuing a law degree. I mean Jesus Christ, come on. Nobody does that. He was also an accomplished archaeologist and a member of everything from the Mark Twain Society to the Red Cross to the French Ethnographical Society (which he founded). Oh, and Roerich did the set design for the infamous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Late in his life he drafted a pact—ratified by FDR and 35 other heads of state—establishing the protection of cultural artifacts during times of war.
But the worst part? The worst part of all of this? Is that his art is killer. Dude published 32 books and he still found time to develop a great painterly technique and earn multiple Nobel nominations. That smug bastard.
The Roerich Museum’s 200 or so paintings are as gorgeous as they are soulful. Many show religious icons (Milarepa, “Mahomet”) that dominate the picture plane; in others, anonymous figures contrast with muscular landscapes and hallucinogenic skies. Nearly all of the canvases show Roerich to be a skilled draftsman with a powerful understanding of color and light. The Museum itself—an 1890s townhouse with stained glass windows and creaky stairs—is the perfect setting for his work.
So there you have it. Nicholas Roerich: archeologist, writer, philosopher, lawyer, anthropologist, and painter.
And first-rate dick.