MK Čiurlionis at the Dulwich Picture Gallery: a spotlight on a Lithuanian artist hero

MK Čiurlionis, “Angel (Paradise)” (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

For six frenzied years between 1903 and 1909, the young Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis got up every day and did nothing but compose music or paint pictures. In the end he had produced 300 artworks and 400 musical compositions.

Burned out by his feverish creativity, he fell into a deep depression and was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he died of pneumonia at the age of 35. While relatively unknown outside of Lithuania, Čiurlionis is considered a national hero at home. Now his pictures are being presented to the British public in his first exhibition in London, the Dulwich Picture Gallery MK Čiurlionis: Between the worlds.

More than 100 works were loaned from MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Lithuania. Located in the country’s second largest city, Kaunas, the museum is a large, white, modernist building in which the artist’s small and highly detailed paintings seemed lost when I visited earlier this year. In Dulwich’s intimate, almost home setting, they are far more powerful. The walls have been painted a deep purple and teal especially for this show, and the bold use of color provides an excellent backdrop for the light pastel tones of his work.

Although Čiurlionis’ compositions are performed by orchestras around the world, his paintings rarely leave Lithuania, partly because of their fragility. Čiurlionis could not afford oil paints or large canvases, so most of his paintings are tempera or pastels on paper or board, transporting the viewer to other worlds: fantasy lands full of forests, mythological cities, anthropomorphic mountains and clouds in a glorious array of colors.

Symbolist painting of the earth in space

MK Čiurlionis, “Creation of the World III”, from the cycle of 13 paintings (1905-06) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to some of them: the 13 paintings that make up the unfinished cycle “The Creation of the World” by Čiurlionis. He intended 100 works, stating that it was “not our world according to the Bible, but another fantastic world.” It is a fertile world, rich in rivers, flowers, forests, fish, mushrooms and animals. There is a bearded man with a crown that features frequently in his iconography, but he is more of a fairy king than a Christian god. Čiurlionis’ reverence for Lithuania’s pagan past – before it embraced Christianity in 1387, it worshiped nature – while his country struggled to preserve its cultural identity under Russian imperialism made him a hero to Lithuanian nationalists. The legacy of these beliefs still runs through Lithuanian folklore and culture.

But the style of Čiurlionis’ work is abstract. He was a musical prodigy who studied composition long before he picked up his paintbrush. He imagined “the whole world as one gigantic symphony”. Like Van Gogh and Kandinsky, he had synesthesia, a neurological condition that enabled him to see sounds in colors and images. Some of the works in the second part of the “Creation” series look like sheet music with notes that could be long-stemmed flowers or ectoplasmic clouds floating in the air. He also painted seven sonata cycles. “People talk about Kandinsky being the first abstract artist, but Čiurlionis was there first,” says curator Kathleen Soriano. “We know that Kandinsky became aware of his work because he wanted him to take part in an exhibition in Munich. Unfortunately, the invitation came too late.”

Symbolist painting of the mountain reflected in the water
MK Čiurlionis, “Serenity” (1904-05) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Art Museum

Symbolist painting of a king

MK Čiurlionis, “Rex” (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Art Museum

Sepia photo of Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis

MK Čiurlionis in 1908 © Photo by S Fleury. Courtesy of MK Čiurlionis National Art Museum

Images of decaying architecture and sombre cityscapes feature prominently in Čiurlioni’s work, contrasting with his sunlit fields of wildflowers and magical winter landscapes. But there is more light than darkness. “He’s often compared to William Blake,” Soriano says, “but while Blake was all fire and brimstone, Čiurlionis is all about joy. Unlike Van Gogh, he never painted when he was depressed.”

After studying in Warsaw and Leipzig and visiting museums in Munich, Čiurlionis was also aware of Symbolist art, which rejected realism in favor of spirituality, imagination and dreams. He painted in a time of rapid technological and social change. Electrification had just arrived, religion was in question; people moved from the countryside to the city and the Symbolists were deeply suspicious of this new urbanization.

Symbolist painting of two kings in a forest holding a city in their hands

MK Čiurlionis, “Fairy Tales (Tales of Kings)” (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

The triptych “Fairy Tales” painted in 1907 shows Rex, the royal figure with a crown and a long white beard, who guards the land. In the center, a giant bird hovers over a naked baby playing with a giant dandelion; on the left is a castle on the hill. The pictures remember A Midsummer night’s dream or Lord of the Rings, while the fantastic cityscapes remind me of the architecture in game of Thrones or Fritz Lang’s 1927 film metropolis. I predict this will be a popular show with gamers, fantasy fans, and families.

The venue is also relevant. The Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded by two London art dealers commissioned by the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1790 to assemble a national collection. But before they were done, the country was divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and they were left with the paintings. The founders are buried in a mausoleum in the middle of the gallery, where a recording of Čiurlionis’ symphonies is played for the duration of the exhibition. It’s a wonderful piece of historical circularity.

Until March 12, dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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