03 February 2023
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: a genius cursed by fate?
Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently holding an exhibition of the works of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the best known Lithuanian artist and composer. Over a hundred works are on loan from the M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas where most of the artist’s work is held. The exhibition venue itself has historical links with Poland and Lithuania. In 1790 Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, commissioned two art dealers to create a Royal Collection. By the time the task was completed, Poland had undergone three partitions and finally ceased to exist as a sovereign state. Stanisław August was forced to abdicate. As the British Museum’s trustees were considered to be “too arbitrary and aristocratic”, the collection was left to Dulwich College, on condition that it was made available to the public. What was supposed to be the Stanisław August Poniatowski’s Royal Collection became an important part of the collections of Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest public gallery in England.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 1905. Photograph by Stanisław Filibert Fleury. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was born in 1875 in the small Lithuanian town of Varėna, the eldest of nine children of a church organist. When he was three years old, the family moved to Druskininkai, a resort on the Nemunas river. Čiurlionis was a child prodigy, a pianist by the age of five and organist by the age of six. His talent came to the attention of Prince Michał Ogiński who became the boy’s patron. Čiurlionis moved to Plungė near Klaipėda where, between the ages of 13-16, he attended an orchestral school on the estate of Prince Ogiński. There he learnt to play several other instruments and also sang in the choir.
In later years Ogiński’s patronage enabled Čiurlionis to study piano and composition at the Institute of Music in Warsaw (1894-1899). Čiurlionis also studied harmony, the theory and history of music, natural sciences, astronomy, philosophy, numismatics and mineralogy. Later his studies took him to the Leipzig Conservatoire (1901-1902). He also attended lectures on aesthetics and other subjects at the University of Leipzig, until the death of his patron forced him to abandon his musical studies. Čiurlionis returned to Warsaw and devoted his life to art: he enrolled at the Warsaw School of Drawing and later the School of Fine Arts, supporting himself by giving private lessons. He never abandoned his music – he both painted and composed. During six very intense years (1903-1909) Čiurlionis created 400 musical pieces and 300 works of art. In 1911, diagnosed with severe exhaustion and struggling with his mental health, he was admitted to a sanatorium near Warsaw where he died of pneumonia at the age of 35.
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Family House in Druskininkai, 1905. Pencil on paper. Reproduced in Laima Marija Petruševičiūtė, Melancholy and Sun: Munch and Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2010) LF.31.b.8488
Čiurlionis is a hugely important figure in Lithuanian culture and national consciousness. Not only is his work steeped in Lithuanian mythology and folklore; the artist, who declared his intention to “dedicate to Lithuania” all of his “past and future work”, was actively involved in the Lithuanian national movement and cultural life. In 1906 he returned to Vilnius and helped to organise, and participated in, the first three exhibitions of Lithuanian art. He was also a co-founder and board member of the Lithuanian Artists Union.
The influential Russian art critic Alexandre Benois called Čiurlionis “a genius cursed by fate, one of those true geniuses, mythmakers, who create works of sublime, ineffable meaning”. The artist’s originality has earned him a unique place in the history of art. Even though his direct contact with Western European art was limited, he is linked to symbolism, art nouveau, neo-Romanticism and abstract art. To the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who knew Čiurlionis , he was the first surrealist artist. Čiurlionis was also an innovative composer who used polyphony, modern chords and musical arabesques, and created a series of compositions and open musical forms. Igor Stravinsky, who owned one of Čiurlionis’ paintings, described him as “possibly the most talented member of the Russian School at the beginning of this century”.
Čiurlionis’ art, rich in symbols, has an otherworldly, poetic quality. His art is strongly influenced by Lithuanian landscapes, mythology and folklore. His works are full of natural images like birds, the sun, trees, mountains, grass snakes. In the artist’s early, symbolic works, such natural forms often appear in the form of a human or animal. Most of Čiurlionis‘ paintings are based on dichotomies: light and darkness, morning and evening, life and death, vertical and horizontal.
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Mountain, 1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, The Sun, 1907. Pastel on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Lithuanian Graveyard, 1909. Tempera on cardboard. Image from Wikimedia Commons
The dreamlike landscapes reflect Čiurlionis’ interest in Eastern philosophy and theosophy. A recurring theme is the figure of Rex – a mythical, benevolent figure of a godlike monarch, omnipotent creator and protector, reflecting the idea of the unity of the Earth and Universe and signifying protection and care.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Rex, 1909. Tempera on canvas. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Fairy Tale (Fairy Tale of the Kings), 1909. Tempera on canvas. Image from Wikimedia Commons
The artist’s deep interest in the relationship between man and the universe is seen, among others, in his cycle of 13 paintings Creation of the World (1905/1906). Čiurlionis wrote that, “This is the Creation of the World, not of our world according to the Bible, but another, fantastical world.”
M.K. Čiurlionis, Creation of the World V, 1905/1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Creation of the World IX, 1905/1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Čiurlionis is considered by some art critics as a pioneer of abstract art. According to the Estonian art critic Aleksis Rannit “Čiurlionis is the first abstract painter and yet few knew it... Kandinsky... only painted his first abstract work in 1911. But already in 1904, Čiurlionis gave the world a body of work that we must class as abstract, of semi-abstract painting”. Rannit’s statement started a discussion among art critics as well as a row with Kandinsky’s widow, who claimed that her husband had never seen Čiurlionis’ paintings and therefore could not have been inspired by them.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sparks III, 1906. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Winter IV, 1907. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, My Road II, 1907. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
There is a close link between Čiurlionis’ music and his art. His synaesthesia enabled him to see sound in colours and images; he imagined “the whole world as a great symphony”. His paintings often have musical titles, like prelude, scherzo, andante, allegro, finale. Applying the principles of musical composition to painting, the artist created seven sonata cycles. Although other artists at the time also explored the idea of fusion of music and art, trying to “paint music”, Čiurlionis was more interested in the structure of the painting reflecting the structure of musical composition. He painted repetitions of motifs, his lines followed a melodic rhythm, creating harmonies with colours.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars), Allegro, 1908. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Sonata No. 7 (Sonata of the Pyramids), Allegro, 1909. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Čiurlionis, Angel (Angel Prelude), 1909. Tempera on paper. Image from Wikimedia Commons
As an artist, for many years Čiurlionis did not achieve the recognition he deserved. His work was ahead of his time yet he remained on the fringes of Western art, in part because he lived away from Europe’s main artistic centres, on the fringes of what was then the Russian Empire. There were several occasions, however, when he came close to gaining an important place in the history of art. In 1908, during his stay in St Petersburg, Čiurlionis developed close links with the members of the Mir isskustva (World of Art) movement, especially Alexandre Benois, but unfortunately soon afterwards the artist’s health deteriorated. Another missed opportunity was the invitation in 1910 to take part in an exhibition held by Neue Künstlervereinigung München. The invitation came too late: Čiurlionis was already seriously ill. At the beginning of the First World War most of Čiurlionis’ works were moved to Moscow. The upheaval caused by the War and later by the Russian Revolution meant that planned critical works on Čiurlionis did not appear. In 1919 Čiurlionis’ works were returned to Lithuania. After a brief period of independence, the Second World War II and annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union followed. Čiurlionis’ works were not exhibited until the 1950s.
The 1960s saw a renewed interest in Čiurlionis in the Soviet Union but the modernist aspects of his art were often ignored. Until the restoration of Lithuanian independence, Čiurlionis’ original artwork wasn’t easily accessible to foreign art historians which excluded him from foreign art histories. His works rarely left Lithuania, partly for ideological reasons and partly because they are fragile (most of his works are tempera or pastels on paper or card as the artist could not afford oil paints or canvasses). However, there has been an increase in international interest in Čiurlionis in the last 20 or so years. His works have been exhibited in cities such as Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, Milan, and Helsinki. It was high time they came to London too.
Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections
References and further reading:
Kathleen Soriano, M.K. Čiurlionis: between worlds (London, 2022)
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: album; preface by Rasutė Andriušytė- Žukienė (Kaunas, 2007) LD.31.b.1395
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911): jo laikas ir musų laikas = His time and our time (Vilnius, 2013) EMF.2015.a.81
Laima Marija Petruševičiūtė, Melancholy and Sun: Munch and Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2010) LF.31.b.8488
Rasa Andriušytė- Žukienė, M.K. Čiurlionis: tarp simbolizmo ir modernizmo (Vilnius, 2004) YF.2007.a.10706
Vytautas Landsbergis, Visas Čiurlionis (Vilnius, 2008) YF.2009.a.8557
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: twórczość, osobowość, środowisko (Warsaw, 2001) YF.2004.b.618
Antanas Andrijauskas, ‘Musical paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Modernism’, Music in Art, Vol. 37, No. 1/ 2 (Spring –Fall 2012), pp. 249-264. 5990.227850
Genovaitė Kazokas, Musical paintings: life and work of M.K. Čiurlionis (1875-1911) (Vilnius, 2009) YD.2010.a.2999