Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) was a Lithuanian composer, painter and writer, who characteristically weaved each of these elements into his expressive audio-visual narratives.
Building on its reputation for introducing lesser-known artists to British audiences, the Dulwich Picture Gallery brought together over 100 works by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, with most travelling to the UK for the first time in 2022. Displayed chronologically, M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds revealed the ways in which Čiurlionis used structure and colour to compose works that sit between mythological and material. Centre stage was his esoteric portrayal of humankind’s relationship to the universe, and even though his direct contact with Western European art was limited, he is linked to symbolism, art nouveau, neo-Romanticism and abstraction.
In 1790 Stanisław August Poniatowski, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, commissioned two art dealers to create a Royal Collection. By the time the task was completed however, 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, England’s oldest public gallery.
Serenading his most accomplished masterpieces, including Creation of the World, The Zodiac, and Rex, the exhibition positioned him as an individual within the history of European art whose ethereal, and frequently fantastical works were significant precursors of further adventures into the abstract. Čiurlionis had formal training from the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, and also remained an active and well-regarded composer throughout his short life. Having been diagnosed with exhaustion in 1911, he died of pneumonia in a sanatorium, where he had been recuperating from the mental stresses of extended poverty at the age of just 35.
Despite dying so young, he left a substantial body of work including paintings, etchings, music, literature and poetry. Čiurlionis’ characteristic cycles are the chronological groupings of works he created, in which scenes and narratives unfold and evolve over time. The Gallery shared the Creation of the World as a series of 13 paintings depicting Čiurlionis’ own visions of the creation story, and Winter – a cycle of eight paintings illustrating his move towards abstraction. At the heart of the exhibition were three of the seven Sonata cycles that he painted, involving the Sonata of the Sea (1908) trilogy. Named Andante, Allegro and Finale, the titles of this cycle align with the dynamic nature of the ocean; unveiling Čiurlionis’ unique approach to infusing music with movement.
Rex, one of Čiurlionis’ late and best-known artworks, was the climax of the retrospective. Here Čiurlionis presents his holistic vision of a complex and intertwined relationship between the earthly and the universal. Combining many of the elements that Čiurlionis returned to throughout his vocation – mythology, folklore and mysticism – it was set to the backdrop of his musical compositions in the gallery’s Mausoleum. An aggregate, immersive aural experience, it enriched our understanding and sensations of his private panoramas.
“In 1866, the writer Emile Zola defined a work of art as ‘a corner of creation seen through a temperament’, and via Čiurlionis’ aesthetic and sensitive yet powerful work, we see glimpses of the man whose intense and passionate creativity was cruelly cut short. In this exhibition Čiurlionis invites us all to travel with him between worlds – from the celestial to the earthly, the physical to the spiritual, from music to painting, the fantastical to the real, and from the figurative to the abstract.” – Kathleen Soriano, independent curator and broadcaster.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was born in the small Lithuanian town of Varėna, as the eldest of nine children and son of a church organist. 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 his patron, and it was only when the death of the prince forced him to abandon his interdisciplinary music studies, that he returned to Warsaw and devoted himself to art.
The artist who once declared his intention to “dedicate to Lithuania” all of his “past and future work”, was actively involved in the Lithuania’s cultural life. In 1906 he returned to Vilnius and helped to organise, and participate in, the first three exhibitions of Lithuanian art. He was also a co-founder and board member of the Lithuanian Artists Union. His originality has earned him a unique place in the history of art, and influential Russian art critic Alexandre Benois called Čiurlionis “a genius cursed by fate, one of those true geniuses and myth-makers, who create works of sublime, ineffable meaning”.
Although Čiurlionis’ music is performed by orchestras the world over, his paintings rarely leave Lithuania, partly because of their fragility. He couldn’t afford oil paints or large canvases, so most of his pictures are tempera, or pastels on paper and card. But they maintain their sturdy reverence towards Lithuania’s pagan past – before adopting Christianity in 1387 it worshipped the natural world, and while his country was struggling to maintain its cultural identity under Russian imperialism, his work became important to Lithuanian nationalists. However he also portrays influences from a mix of Eastern philosophies, as well as his personal ties to Theosophy.
Rich in treasured symbols, his stories are of otherworldly realms imbued with poetic qualities, while being grounded in natural forms. On The Creation of The World, Čiurlionis wrote: “this is the Creation of the World, not of our world according to the Bible, but another, fantastical world”. The series could be divided into two main stages: a celestial sonata and the birth of terrestrial life, documenting the appearance and development of living organisms. Rex is a formative and recurring concept, symbolising unity between Earth and Cosmos, while signifying order and oversight.
Synaesthesia heightened Čiurlionis’ ability to link sight with symphony; and many of his pieces share musical motifs such as prelude and scherzo. Although other artists of the time were also exploring ‘painting music’, Čiurlionis was more interested in the structure of the painting reflecting the structure of the composition. He represented pattern and tempo, and his lines followed a melodic flow, producing colourful harmonies.
Čiurlionis harnessed a rejection of reductionist material realism by overlaying it with the spiritual, imagination and dreams. He was painting at a time of rapid technological and social change: electrification had just arrived, the dominant religion was in question; people were moving from the countryside to the city and the symbolists were deeply suspicious of urbanisation. Nearly all Lithuanian literature, art and traditions were rooted in the provincial, and the country’s heritage constituted the principal part of its cultural centre.
The Truth (1905) is the only self-portrait of the artist, depicting the face and upper body of a man holding a candle, which illuminates his features. Surrounding the central flame are small, ghostly apparitions, which seem to ricochet off its vibrancy like sunlit moths. Its composition expresses a balanced dichotomy, and the incandescence is a source of strength, ephemerality and renewal.