To students of early 20th-century music, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875 – 1911) is known as a composer of significance, responsible for some 400 pieces, mostly for the piano. However, for students of painting, outside his native Lithuania he is barely known at all. The main reason for this is because the great majority of his 300 pictures are in a museum in his name in Kaunas. Of those that aren’t there, 15 are in Russia and many of the others have been lost, including a painting bought by Igor Stravinsky. Needless to say, works by Čiurlionis almost never come to the market.
In Lithuania he has national status and his paintings, with their folkloric and personal mystical themes, are familiar to children and adults alike. There he is not just a prominent cultural figure but also a hero of the Lithuanian struggle for independence from Russia. All those works in Kaunas were his bequest, intended for a “House of the Nation” – a museum, concert hall and library combined – for which he raised funds. Čiurlionis’s wider reputation was, therefore, a victim of his patriotism.
What we have been missing is now revealed by the generous and eye-popping selection of his work being shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in “MK Čiurlionis: Between Worlds”. The painter who emerges is fully worthy of attention, but an odd one by any measure.
Because Čiurlionis arrives without a traditional provenance, it is hard to look at his pictures without namechecking other artists – either influences or those with whom he shares a sensibility or stylistic similarities. There is something of William Blake about him, in both their personal cosmologies of myth, creation and vision, and in the small scale of their works – Čiurlionis, financially precarious, painted mostly in tempera on paper and cardboard and only rarely in oils; something too of the portentous Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin, an avowed influence; there’s some Odilon Redon in there; and a bit of the Viennese secessionists, of Edvard Munch and even the architecture of Antoni Gaudí.
Meanwhile, some paintings are prefigurings of abstraction, futurism and surrealism, while his themes meld a swathe of the intellectual interests of the time – theosophy, Egyptology, Hinduism and eastern mysticism, and the relationship between nature and the city. To make sense of this bewildering mixture, his pictures have often been presented as manifestations of synaesthesia – “seeing” music as colour.
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Čiurlionis himself was as complex as his paintings. He could play the piano properly at five years old and the organ at six, but by his teens he was experiencing bouts of mental illness – possibly bipolar disorder, certainly depression. Improbably, the cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz was born in the village in which Čiurlionis and his family lived from 1878, and he recalled seeing Čiurlionis: “passing like a shadow always in deep thoughts. And I was dreaming to be like him. I knew that he was a painter, that he was a musician,” but he didn’t dare approach him because he was “always so withdrawn”.
Čiurlionis left a terrifying account of his mental struggles in a letter to his fiancée, Sofija Kymantaitė: “A strange depressing spirit descended upon me, enormous, with black wings. It was truly awful. I did not complain, but regretted that I was no longer a child who could cry his heart out. Something terrifying weighed down on me.” Nevertheless his pictures, unlike Blake’s, are largely optimistic and joyous. Birds are also a regular motif but as spirit animals, carriers of souls and intermediaries between the celestial and temporal worlds, not as harbingers of despair.
At the centre of his creation myth, Čiurlionis put the figure of Rex, a bearded deity, creator, sage and idol, just as Blake based his imaginary world on Albion and Urizen. Humans only occasionally appear in Čiurlionis’s pictures but Rex and a plethora of angels are constant presences, depicted in silhouette, more motifs than tangible beings.
It was perhaps the musician in him that led Čiurlionis to paint in series: the signs of the Zodiac, seven “Sonata” triptychs, sets showing The Creation of the World, Summer or The City (fantastical and shimmering or premonitions of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). What ties them together is the numinous lighting that he once described in ecstatic terms: “I saw spring around me, like a glowing princess. All the trees lit up their candles and chandeliers, and the great festival of a silent morning began.” Blobs of light top many of his tall structures.
All this intense imagining was the fruit of “wandering on the distant horizons of my dream world”, and was squeezed into a working period of little more than six years. Those wanderings were cut short by his death from pneumonia at 35, but this fascinating and revelatory exhibition allows us to accompany him for a while.
MK Čiurlionis: Between Worlds
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21
Until 12 March 2023
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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke