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

MK Čiurlionis, ‘Angels (Paradise)’ (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

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

Burnt out by his feverish creativity, he fell into a profound depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he died of pneumonia aged 35. While relatively unknown outside Lithuania, at home Čiurlionis is considered a national hero. Now, his paintings by him are being introduced to UK audiences in his first London show by him, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s MK Čiurlionis: Between Worlds.

More than 100 works have been loaned by the MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Lithuania. Situated in the country’s second city, Kaunas, the museum is a large white modernist building where the artist’s small and highly detailed pictures seemed lost when I visited earlier this year. They are far more powerful in Dulwich’s intimate, almost domestic setting. The walls have been painted in a deep purple and blue-green specially for this show and the bold use of color provides an excellent backdrop to the bright pastels of his work.

Although Čiurlionis’s compositions are performed by orchestras the world over, his paintings rarely leave Lithuania, partly because of their fragility. Čiurlionis couldn’t afford oil paints or large canvases, so most of his pictures are tempera, or pastels on paper or card, 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 devoted to some of these: the 13 pictures that make up Čiurlionis’s unfinished “Creation of the World” cycle. He intended it to be 100 works, explaining that it was “not our world according to the Bible, but another fantastic world”. It is a fecund world rich in rivers, flowers, forests, fish, mushrooms and animals. There is a bearded man with a crown who appears frequently in his iconography, but he is more a fairy king than a Christian god. Čiurlionis’s reverence towards Lithuania’s pagan past — before adopting Christianity in 1387 it worshiped the natural world — while his country him was struggling to maintain its cultural identity under Russian imperialism turned him into a hero for Lithuanian nationalists. The legacy of these beliefs still runs through Lithuanian folklore and culture.

Yet the style of Čiurlionis’s work is abstract. He was a musical prodigy who studied composition long before picking up a paintbrush. He imagined “the whole world as a giant symphony”. Like Van Gogh and Kandinsky, he had synaesthesia, a neurological condition that enabled him to see sound in colors and images. Some of the works in the second part of the “Creation” series look like scores with musical 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 Kandinsky was aware of his work because he wanted him to take part in an exhibition in Munich. Sadly, the invitation arrived too late.”

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

Symbolist painting of a king

MK Čiurlionis, ‘Rex’ (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

Sepia photo of Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis

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

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

Having studied in Warsaw and Leipzig and visited museums in Munich, Čiurlionis was also aware of symbolist art that rejected realism in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams. He was painting at a time of rapid technological and social change. Electrification had just arrived, religion was in question; people were moving from the countryside to the city and the symbolists were deeply suspicious of this new urbanisation.

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

MK Čiurlionis, ‘Fairy Tale (Fairy Tale of Kings)’ (1909) © Courtesy MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

The “Fairy Tale” triptych painted in 1907 features Rex, the kinglike figure with a crown and long white beard guarding the land. In the center is a giant bird swooping over a naked baby who is playing with a giant dandelion; on the left is a castle on the hill. The images bring to mind THE Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Lord of the Rings, while the fantastical 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 has relevance, too. Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded by two London art dealers who were commissioned in 1790 by the king of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth to assemble a national collection. But before they could finish, the country was carved up by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and they were left holding the pictures. The founders are buried in a mausoleum in the center of the gallery where the recording of Čiurlionis’s symphonies will be played for the duration of the exhibition. It is a wonderful piece of historical circularity.

To March 12,

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