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Art review: M. K. Ciurlionis: Between Worlds at Dulwich Picture Gallery

27 January 2023

Jonathan Evens sees a Lithuanian’s visions of the world and beyond

Courtesy M. K.Ciurlionis National Museum of Art

M.K. Ciurlionis, Angels (Paradise) (1909), tempera on paper

M.K. Ciurlionis, Angels (Paradise) (1909), tempera on paper

ABOUT an artist widely credited as Lithuania’s greatest, “M. K. Ciurlionis: Between Worlds” shows, for the first time in the UK, paintings created throughout his short but prolific career, while also highlighting the breadth of his interests and examining the themes and motifs that aligned his art to European Symbolism.

As the curator, Kathleen Soriano, has said, “Ciurlionis 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.”

Ciurlionis was a precursor of fantasy art, being an artist concerned with “the creation of another fantastic world”, and a precursor of abstract art, as light often shrouds or saturates his scenes, creating blurring or veiling effects that are semi-abstract and create a sense of the spiritual within the scene.

He started his career as a pianist and organist, studying music at the Institute of Music in Warsaw from 1894 to 1899. It was not until 1902 that he took up drawing and painting, before enrolling in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts in 1904. Despite dying young, he left a substantial body of work: between 1903 and 1909, he produced about 400 paintings and etchings, and a similar number of musical compositions, as well as several literary works and poems. As a result, he left a profound imprint on Lithuanian culture.

Courtesy M. K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art.M. K. Ciurlionis, Creation of the World. III from the cycle of 13 paintings (1905-06), tempera on paper

Another effect of this polymathic range was a concern to unify the various fields across which he was inspired to work. He often worked in series, groupings of works in which scenes and narrative could evolve over time. At the heart of this exhibition are three of the seven Sonata cycles that he painted, including the three-part Sonata of the Sea (1908). Named Andante, Allegro, and Finale, titles in this cycle mirror the distinct parts of a musical sonata, aligned with the corresponding movements of the sea. Through these works, Ciurlionis revealed his unique approach to uniting the principles of music and painting.

In bringing together the celestial and the earthly, the physical and the spiritual, music and painting, the fantastical and the real, the figurative and the abstract, Ciurlionis employed a range of techniques and approaches, including the blurring and blending of forms through light and colour; a layering of lines and colours which enables an interweaving or interpenetration of states and forms; the reversing of forms or states of being, such as sea and sky; and a focus on the horizon as the meeting point between zones or worlds, in which the horizon line often functions as a bridge between worlds.

In exploring these effects, the exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with vibrant colour bursts in figurative scenes such as Rex (Sketch I from the diptych for stained glass) and Morning, and culminating in the semi-abstract Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars) and Rex.

Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars) depicts a unity of sea, sky, and stars, within which a central upward triangular movement or flow is combined with a celestial horizontal bridge. Rex is an overlapping, interlaced, layered image, revealing a vision of interconnection centred on the repeated central forms of “Rex”, which are interlinked with a repeated series of globes, on which angels are lined. At one and the same time, “Rex” encircles and overarches the globes, while also being penetrated by, and part of, the repeating series.

Courtesy M. K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art.M.K. Ciurlionis, Rex (1909), tempera on canvas

“Rex” is the artist’s shorthand for the values and meaning of the related concepts of “king”, “God”, “spirit”, “creator”, and “protector”.

Ciurlionis’s work moves towards the abstract, while remaining semi-abstract. In 1949, the Estonian art critic Aleksis Rannit gave a lecture in Paris in which he claimed Ciurlionis as the first abstract painter, noting that Wassily Kandinsky’s first abstract work was produced in 1911, the year when he would have seen Ciurlionis’s commemorative exhibition in Moscow.

While Kandinsky undoubtedly knew Ciurlionis’s work, there is no clear evidence of direct influence. Kandinsky moves into full abstraction in a way that was not reached by Ciurlionis before his death from pneumonia in 1911. A similar debate will be had later this year as a result of the Tate Modern exhibition “Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life”. There is a stronger case to be made for Hilma af Klint as the first abstract artist, although in isolation and without influence on those who followed, such as Kandinsky and Mondrian. The fact that all these artists were influenced by Theosophy also demonstrates the significant part that spirituality played in the development of abstract art.

Ciurlionis’s work was not without its own influence, however. Soriano notes in the catalogue that Kasimir Malevich took inspiration from the motifs and geometric structures in Ciurlionis’s Sonata paintings for works such as his Shroud of Christ paintings. The composers Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen also valued Ciurlionis’s work. Messiaen wrote that his “musical goals are very close to what the ingenious painter wanted to achieve”.

Ciurlionis’s Silence is the work in which he comes closest to full abstraction. In 1908, he wrote: “I’d like you . . . to listen to silence, which is a song of the New Language. I’d like to compose a symphony from the murmur of the waves, from the mysterious language of the ancient forest, from the twinkling of the stars, from our songs, and from my immense longing.” In these words, he effectively sums up his real achievement and influence.

“M. K. Ciurlionis: Between Worlds” runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 12 March. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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