The mysteries surrounding the figure of the famous mystic and spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff (1866?, 1872?, 1874?, 1877?, Alexandropol, Russian Empire—1949, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) begin with his date of birth. Biographers’ opinions diverge and that is hardly surprising, since the “teacher,” as his followers called him, conjured numerous mystifications and fantasies about his life and created this riddle himself. We do know that he was born into a Greek-Armenian family in Alexandropol (Gyumri). His father was an ashik folk singer and musician, who was quite well known in the area, and Gurdjieff was familiar with the myths and legends of the East from an early age.
The small border town of Alexandropol did not satisfy the young man’s ambition and thirst for knowledge, and he set out on a journey to discover the world and find himself. According to his autobiographical work Meetings with Remarkable Men, as well as wandering through the Caucasus, Persia, and the Himalayas, Gurdjieff spent eleven years travelling across Central Asia, which at the time was known as Russian Turkestan. Although his biographers can neither confirm nor deny his account, its truthfulness is of secondary importance when it concerns the spiritual journey of
a person as extraordinary as Gurdjieff. Whether the journey happened or not, his study of Central Asia’s religions—from Eastern Christianity to Buddhism and Sufism—inspired Gurdjieff to create his own teaching— the “Fourth Way,” which put forward a particular system for personal development. Gurdjieff believed that people lived in a state of “hypnotic sleep” and needed to work on their minds, bodies, spirits, and emotions in order to “wake up.”
In the 1910s, the mystic travelled around the Russian Empire and in 1915 met P. D. Ouspensky, who became his follower. Ouspensky was the author of The Fourth Dimension and the husband of the artist Vera Pshesetskaya (Runa), whose work is featured in this exhibition. In Tiflis (Tbilisi), Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann, whose wife Jeanne later became one of his most loyal students and continued to teach the sacred dances, or movements, which she developed together with the “teacher,” in France until 1990. When the Civil War broke out in Russia, Gurdjieff and his students moved to Istanbul, where he tried to establish the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. They later moved to Europe and then to the United States.
As his teaching was focused on the “awakening” of people, Gurdjieff attached great importance to art and action, which led to the creation of his sacred dances. Composed of particular movements, they were essentially texts or sequences of phrases. Every gesture referred to a truth or a revelation discovered by Gurdjieff on his journey. As a synthetic work, the system of sacred dances also required special music to bring together the meanings conveyed through movements into a coherent text. Gurdjieff wrote the music for the movements in collaboration with his student, the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
Few people know that the Soviet sculptor Sergei Merkulov—the recipient of two Stalin Prizes and the author of iconic portraits of Lenin (including his death mask)—was Gurdjieff’s cousin. They kept up a correspondence, which has not been preserved. Indirect evidence of their connection is Merkulov’s sculpture Thought (1911–1913), which traveled around various areas of Moscow before ending its journey on the artist’s grave at Novodevichy Cemetery. The “thinker” has Gurdjieff’s features, while his clothes allow us to identify him as an eastern priest. To this day followers of the Fourth Way gather by this monument to pay their respects to the great mystic.