Sunday, December 14, 2014

Master Institute

I'm still working on my Wikipedia article on Werner Drewes and, as before, I've turned up interesting stuff that I can't include. In 1940 he taught abstract art at a place called the Master Institute of United Arts. That job was not his only source of income that year as he also taught painting and design at Columbia University and somehow he managed to hold two other positions as well. One was managing a federal arts project in New York and the other making maps for the Fairchild Aerial Survey Company. He placed works in ten exhibitions in 1940 and '41 which presumably means he somehow managed to allocate at least a few of his waking hours to painting and printmaking.

This piece isn't on Drewes's efforts to bring home the bacon, however, but on the Master Institute and its owners. The place had been given birth in 1921 as an art school comprising a single unpainted room in a dingy building on West 54th Street. It was founded by Nicholas and Helena Roerich. He was a native of St. Petersburg whose father's generosity enabled him to indulge a passion for the high culture of late 19th-century Russia. A prolific painter, amateur archaeologist, and humanitarian, he loved travel and had a special passion for journeys within Central Asia. While completing his university thesis he met and fell in love with Helena. The daughter of a prominent architect (Shaposhnikov) and the niece of the composer Mussorgsky, she was every bit as culturally attuned as he. In time, they both became enthralled with the religious beliefs of the Indian subcontinent. Sometime during the years 1915-1917 the couple experienced a spiritual revelation. They encountered a mystic being whom they came to know as the Great Teacher and were able to communicate with this ethereal entity via clairvoyance. From it they learned a way of life they called Living Ethics and a practice they called Agni Yoga. Although their incorporeal guru changed its identity from time to time, it frequently spoke to them in the form of Mahatma Morya, the same spirit invoked by the Theosophist H.P. Blavatsky. Like Blavatsky the Roeriches sought to use their extra-terrestrial link to induce a spiritual awakening among humankind and thereby establish a universal brotherhood of all beings. Uniquely, they believed this awakening could best be effected through the spread of cultural attainment. To them, the study of visual and performing arts was the medium by which salvation could be brought to an inharmonious and unpacific world.

On coming to New York in 1920, Nicholas and Helena, now practically broke, began to teach their living ethics by setting up a "Master School of United Arts" in which the "Master" was their spiritual guide and the instruction was universal: painting, music, singing, dance, theater, ceramics, and mechanical drawing. Their goal could not realistically be achieved in the space they rented and, while the school attracted interest, it was not a financial success. At this time the Roeriches came in contact with a wealthy couple, Nettie and Louis Horch. In conversations over many months they told the Horches about the Great Work, their grand experiment to open the gates to spiritual enlightenment and unify mankind by means of the arts. They also sought to convince the Horches that the enterprise needed and deserved the contributions of financial angels to effect it. The Horches became believers. Over the course of the coming decade Louis Horch would disperse over a million dollars to the cause. In working to accomplish their great aims the Horches, Roeriches, and a small cohort of co-workers met regularly to receive enlightenment from the Master. They formulated questions about the spiritual quest they shared and about the running of the school for which they were responsible. Helena communicated with the great teacher and Nicholas wrote the answers she received on big rolls of sketching paper. Eventually, as the scroll lengthened, the Roeriches made a book of the contents called Leaves of Morya's Garden. Many of these statements take the form of commands, as here:
You, My disciples, behold!
Dream of the future and you will see the regeneration of the world.
Forget not compassion in your striving.
Understand Me.
Remember, Art is the one vital medium of the coming culture.
Through Beauty will you approach.
Understand and remember.
I have entrusted you to pronounce Beauty.
I bid you pronounce Beauty.
(From no. 332, Leaves of Morya's Garden)
The extent of the Horches devotion is shown in the many letters they wrote to the Roeriches during the latter's extensive travels in Central Asia, some of which Louis funded. In one letter, dated October 26, 1923, Nettie wrote of the "great miracle" of the Roeriches' teaching and the "great spiritual conquest" they had undertaken. She said, "Dearest Mother, if you only knew what happiness you brought into my life! Each action or thought of helpfulness or love has been inspired by your example. I find myself a living counterpart of you for all my thoughts and deeds are but the sprouts of the seeds you have planted in my soul. I feel your living presence in my heart, and I strive to nourish it to growth and creation. I find so much of yourself within me, that I sometimes feel like your reflection even tho’ it may be a very pale one. I shall preserve the very best of myself, as my offering to my most treasured mother. The care and love granted us by our great Teacher moves me beyond words." Years later, on February 14, 1930, Louis wrote Helena a kind of love letter fitting to the day. He thanked her for her "divine" letters in which she had told him "that above all daily tasks must always stand continuously the Image of Our Great Teacher and His Cosmic Teachings." He said he and Nettie owed the Roeriches everything: "You and Prof. Roerich have opened the Gates to us—you have shown us the higher path and have brought us to the Great Teacher. To thank you in mere words is impossible. Be assured Dear Mother that I will do my utmost to carry out your commands. Every one of your advices and suggestions came true. I will do everything in my power to bring greater unity into the circle."

As the source of its funding Louis took over the practical affairs of organizing the school. He had it incorporated as a non-profit enterprise under the name "Master Institute of United Arts" and bought a building in which to house both it and a set of rent-free apartments where teachers and visiting impecunious esoterics could reside. He also set up a gallery, the Roerich Museum, for the display of Nicholas's art and the objects he was collecting on his travels. The corporation papers for the Master Institute give its purpose as the unification of mankind through art, where art was seen as the "one solace, the one bridge of understanding between all humanity." In 1929 the Horches replaced this relatively small building with a 29-story Art Nouveau skyscraper on Riverside Drive. The first three floors contained the Institute and Museum, a theater, and studios, while the upper ones were all apartments, some occupied free of rent but most intended to be income-producing. Not long after construction was completed, the crash of the stock market and subsequent depression caused the operation to collapse. The bank holding the mortgage foreclosed and the corporation went into receivership. Shortly thereafter the Horches and Roeriches fell out. When the corporation emerged from bankruptcy with Louis in control, the Roeriches sued alleging that they had been unjustly deprived of their share. The suit failed when the court ruled that Nicholas had ceded full ownership rights to Louis as the enterprise's sole investor. The legal battle left scars. Louis accused the Roeriches of gross hypocrisy and he and Nettie severed relations with them. Louis wrote, "under the guise of spirituality" he and Nettie had "witnessed the service to egotism and self-glorification" in the Roeriches. Stating that "your ways of action are not my ways," he declared the breach between them to be irreconcilable.

Emerging from bankruptcy in 1937, the Horches thus exercised full control over the Master Institute, the Museum, and the building in which they were located. They resumed running the Institute as a nonprofit venture. Revenues, most from renting the apartments, were sufficient to permit them to charge no admission to the Museum—now called the Riverside Museum and dedicated to showing contemporary art—or to take commissions on sale of works displayed. The two institutions and the building that contained them continued thereafter with little change until 1971 when the Horches retired and moved to Florida. That building at 103rd Street and Riverside Drive is now cooperative apartments. It has a web site with a section devoted to the history of the structure but it's not evident the owners (having paid a good $2 million for the apartments they occupy) are aware that the building they know as Master Apartments takes its name from a mystic being known as the Great Teacher with whom Nicholas and Helena Roerich maintained communication through the 1920s and '30s.

Louis Horch and Nicholas Roerich continued to be linked to one another despite their dramatic split. During World War II Louis handled foreign-exchange transactions for the Department of Agriculture while it was headed by Henry Wallace. Wallace, who was later to become Vice President, had become infatuated with the occult practices Roerich promoted, had passionately supported the cause during the financial turmoil of the Depression years, and had given government funding for some of the projects Roerich put forward involving travel in Central Asia. During one of these trips it appeared that Roerich had been making plans to set himself up as the president of a new Central Asian republic and to use force if necessary to achieve this end. There's no certainty that there was any truth in this allegation but, when Horch brought it to Wallace's attention, his support for Roerich began to erode and, not long after, government funding for Roerich's work was withdrawn.

The Roeriches stayed abroad the rest of their lives. He died in India in 1947. She died in Tibet in 1955. Louis Horch resigned from government service in 1947, continued management of the Master Institute, and, after its closing, devoted himself to the Bloomingdale Conservation Project, a program to rehabilitate the Upper West Side neighborhood where the Master Institute was located. He died in Florida in 1979. Nettie Horch co-managed the Institute with her husband. In 1933 a glowing profile in the Women's Section of the New York Evening Post described the busy life of a woman devoted to cultural advancement. She was particularly interested in advancing the careers of women artists.


This photo shows most of the principals involved in running the Master Institute. From left to right: Esther Lichtmann, Sinaida Lichtmann, Nicholas Roerich, Nettie Horch, Frances Grant; standing: Louis Horch, Sofie Shafran, Svetoslav Roerich, Maurice Lichtmann, Tatiana Grebenshchikova, Georgy Grebenshchikov; taken December 7, 1924, at the Master Institute. Maurice and Sina Lichtmann were a Russian couple who ran a small music school, the Lichtmann Piano Studio, in New York. After they became disciples of the Roeriches the studio's students transfered to the newly formed Master School of Art. Esther was Maurice's sister. Sophie Shafran was Sina's mother. Frances Grant was a friend of Nettie's from school days. It was she who introduced the Horches to the Roeriches. Svetoslav was the Roerich's son. Tatiana and Georgy were Russian immigrants and Roerich disciples. (Source: N.K. Roerich and America,


This photo shows Helena Roerich, taken by a professional photographer in St. Petersburg in 1900. (Source: Wikipedia)


The photo above shows the Master Institute building at left, now a co-op called Master Apartments. Beside it is a photo of the promenade at Riverside Park on the riverfront. The third image is an aerial view of the Upper West side showing the building at center (just below the center of the George Washington Bridge). At right you see a cornerstone with a Roerich Museum logo and the year the building was constructed. The three dots in the logo are said to symbolize past, present and future united by the circle of eternity and also religion, knowledge and art in the circle of culture. (Source: Master Apartments web site.)

From 1939 onward, the Riverside Museum hosted annual shows of a group called American Abstract Artists. Drewes, who was one of the 39 founding members of the group, contributed paintings and prints to its exhibitions from the first up to the early 1950s. This image shows an untitled painting of his from the catalog of that first exhibition.


Note on sources:

There are many internet resources on Nicholas and Helena Roerich themselves, their cultural and spiritual ideals, and the story of their association with the Horches.
  • The Nicholas Roerich Museum (no longer associated with the Master Institute) includes biographic information and transcriptions of writings.
  • A Agni Yoga "top site," includes a book, The Roerich Family, by Ekaterina V. Koneva, translated by Nicholas P. Banykin.
  • Especially helpful is a page on Frances Grant, a mutual friend of Nettie Horch and Helena Roerich: Inventory to the Papers of Frances R. Grant by Fernanda Perrone, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries , April 2000.
  • "Directs Culture; Heading 64 Societies of 'Art and Culture,' Wife of Museum President is Busy and Happy" by Martha Dreiblatt, New York Evening Post, June 19, 1933.
  • This is the web site of the cooperative: Master Apartments.
  • The New York Times gave obituaries to both Louis and Nettie Horch: (1) Louis L. Horch, 90 Founder of Museum, New York Times, Apr 16, 1979, pg. D13. (2) Nettie Horch, 94, patron of arts, New York Times News Service, Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1991, pg. 10.
  • Nicholas and Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists by Ruth Abrams Drayer (Quest Books, 2005).

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I invoke Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law for images that appear on this page, excepting those that are in the public domain.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Three friends of Werner Drewes

I'm currently writing a piece on Werner Drewes for Wikipedia. He did his military service in the bloody battles of the Great War's Western Front and made the horrors of that experience tolerable by means of his sketchbook, a copy of Goethe's Faust, and a volume of Nietzsche. After the war he fell in with some interesting fellows while studying to become a professional artist.

One of them was the painter Heinrich Vogeler. Vogeler had fought on the Eastern Front. He subsequently joined the German communist party and was a member of Workers' and Soldiers' Council of the Bremen Soviet Republic during the abortive revolution of 1918. In 1919 he founded a socialist utopian experiment and artists' commune in which Drewes participated for a time. During the 1920s he traveled to the USSR on two occasions and, after the rise of the Nazi party, emigrated there in 1931. Threatened with Soviet persecution for his avant-garde beliefs, he changed his style from expressionist to Socialist-Realist and managed to survive when many friends did not. As the German invasion began to threaten Moscow, Soviet authorities deported him to Kazakhstan and put him to work in one of the labor gangs constructing a hydro-electric dam. There he died, destitute and malnourished, in 1942.

Another friend was the artist William Wauer. Drewes bought his painting "Blutrausch" (bloodlust) with money he'd saved from a job at the Berlin gas works. As well as painter, Wauer was a publisher, art critic, feature editor and illustrator. He published the monthly journal "Quickborn," produced and directed plays and ran his own movie company. In 1911, he achieved fame for his staging of "Die vier Toten der Fiammetta," a pantomime by Herwarth Walden. Wauer wrote extensively about expressionist art and, between 1924 and 1933 when it was shut down by the Nazis, he headed the "International Association of Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists, and Constructivists" (later named Die Abstrakten). He was also an accomplished sculptor. Although the Nazis condemned his work as degenerate and banned him from cultural activity, he was able to remain in Germany during World War II and lived out the rest of his life there.

Herwarth Walden is third and last in this short account of Drewes's friends. Born Georg Levin, Walden took his surname from the famous book by Henry Thoreau. Best known as editor and publisher of the avant-garde magazine, Der Sturm, he was also a musician, composer, author, playwright, bookseller, and gallery owner. It was at his gallery that Drewes saw and purchased Wauer's painting. Like Vogeler, Walden joined the KPD and, in 1932, fled to Moscow to escape the Gestapo. Unlike Vogeler, he did not abandon his passion for avant-garde art and literature and in consequence was attacked as a fascistic purveyor of degenerate art. In 1941 he was arrested and soon after died in a Soviet prison.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

autumn ascends

This photo shows a bit of our back-yard dogwood in afternoon light. This tree shows its fall colors earlier than others. I like the unfocused background of this shot as much as the well-defined green, yellow, and orange shapes that are close at hand. I like, too, the shadowed and highlighted branches fronting, as they do, the abstract fence at lower right and distant greenery above.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


I recently spent some time in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Chicago. I took some photos but I don't think any will end up here. During an afternoon in Chicago's Art Institute I wandered in the galleries of modern American art looking for and failing to find paintings by artists whose lives I've been researching. I wandered also in the great, bright wing of contemporary art and there found two good Mardens.

By far my favorite painting in AIC collections is the one shown above. It's Vuillard's "Foliage-Oak Tree and Fruit Seller" of 1918. It's large—over 9 feet wide and 6 high—and it rewards an observer who's willing to give it close attention. The medium is distemper on canvas. In making it Vuillard mixed powdered pigments in water and a hot-glue binder. He had to act quickly as the pigments became unworkable as they cooled. The result is pleasingly free and expressive.

This image shows us all how difficult, near impossible, it is to render a painting like Vuillard's on computer screen. It's disheartening. In general, the media—painting and digital photography—do not seem to be so very incompatible. In this case they are.

I write all this largely because the museum as not shown "Foliage" on my last two visits. It's collections are excellent and the time I spend in its galleries nourish my soul, but I'd so like to have ten minutes or so before this one painting once again.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Bright morning sun above Blue Hill Bay, August 2013