The artistic universe of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis , formed in the early 20th century, was marked by the interaction of diverse artistic ideas of Neo-Romanticism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Having embarked on painting career, Čiurlionis did not stop composing music. His artistic work (painting, graphics) lasted six years (1903–1909). He painted many of his works during summer vacations at his parents’ house in Druskininkai. He spent the years 1908 and 1909, with intervals, in St Petersburg, where he created his last paintings including the great Rex (1909).
Čiurlionis left a legacy of around 300 paintings and prints. The bulk of the works are housed in the National M.K. Čiurlionis Art Museum in Kaunas, individual pieces belong to different museums in Vilnius, Warsaw and St Petersburg, and several works are the property of private collections.
Čiurlionis’ painting captivates not only with its mysterious content and picturesque imagery, but also with its original artistic form. Čiurlionis’ art is closely aligned with European Symbolism by similar themes and motifs, and symbolic treatment of the subject matter. At the same time, noteworthy was his ability to think fairly independently from the leading artists of the time and create paintings of totally new plastic form, namely pictorial sonatas, preludes and fugues. By fusing painting and music into a unique artistic formula, these paintings have significantly enriched European Modernism. With his investigations into the plastic vocabulary of painting he cut his way into Modernism much deeper than any other artist of Central and Eastern Europe.
In the context of the 1900s art, Čiurlionis’ paintings of 1907–1909 are considerably innovative. He broke ground with his ingenious method of abstraction, which is based not on colour, but on the graphic-spatial organisation of the painting, offering one of the most unique formulas for applying the musical principle in painting. Thus he belongs to the ranks of the pioneers of abstract art.
Čiurlionis started trying his hand at drawing and painting while still studying at Leipzig Conservatoire (1901–1902). His artistic attempts from 1903 – painted postcards he sent to brother Povilas – are compositions for his future paintings.
In 1904, a fully schooled composer, Čiurlionis enrolled in the Warsaw School of Art where he created his first paintings (Danger, 1904; The Rustling of the Forest, 1904; The Piper, 1904; cycle A Day, 1904–1905; etc). His early works are dominated by images of night, dusk and sunset. Secrets lurking in the dusk, the elegy of nature, inexplicable human fears and strange modes from tender lyricism to fatalistic horror are blended together here. Animisation, a popular principle of Symbolism, in which natural forms, such as a mountain, a bell, a cloud, the tops of the trees, are painted so as to be reminiscent of human or animal forms, is frequently employed in his paintings (Day from picture-cycle A Day and Stillness, both 1904–1905; Mountain, 1906). However, the artist eschewed concreteness of form and content, making the ambiguity of the image invisible at first sight. In his early period of creative output he favoured symbolic motifs such as distant light filtering through forest foliage, sea, boats, fantastic gates, and music-making angels. This iconography points out Čiurlionis’ association not only with Western European Symbolism but also culture of art nouveau and fin de siècle in general.
Čiurlionis was interested not only in literature of the time, but also science – history, philosophy and astronomy. He read philosophical works of Kant, Descartes, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He was also interested in theories, which analysed imaginary visions and perceptions, and discussions how to activate the creative power of imagination. Čiurlionis’ oeuvre emphasises his predisposition to philosophical issues: man as part of the Universe, man’s relation with the Absolute (deity, ruler, Rex). He investigated these themes in a number of paintings among which the most significant are Creation of the World (1905–1906), The Zodiac (1906–1907) and Rex (1909).
There are marked changes in the plastic character of Čiurlionis’ painting around 1906–1907: from narrative symbolist vocabulary he turned to a more expressive painting. This development toward higher degree of professionalism in painting is best illustrated by the cycles Sparks (1906) and Winter (1907). The latter cycle incorporates just a few traditional ‘narrative’ images: the natural motifs are daringly transformed and generalised, they are invested with various associative meanings. Nature often was the leading source of creative inspiration for Čiurlionis. He sought not only to document the landscape, but also provide it with philosophical meaning. The central composition of the triptych My Road (1907) is striking. Not so much because of the degree of visual generalisation and developed principle of linear rhythm in the painting, but due to the attempt to dismiss and overcome traditional mimetic understanding of painting. The principal means of expression here is line. Čiurlionis seeks to obliterate any manifestation of actual reality by employing the plasticity and rhythmic quality of line. The trace of reality, however, remains part of this composition in the motif of flower/star. This triptych is an audacious experiment by Čiurlionis to test the possibilities and interaction of shape and line. Indeed, principles tested here form the basis of the most idiosyncratic body of Čiurlionis’ oeuvre, namely pictorial sonatas.
In his pictorial sonatas, preludes and fugues executed in tempera on paper (1907–1909) the artist revealed his unique ability to employ in painting a visual dialogue characteristic to musical form. He did not ‘paint music’, but rather with composer’s expertise adopted plastic equivalents of musical means of expression: rhythm of line and plane, flexibly waving forms, ‘overlapping’ of several levels of landscape creating an effect of expanded space (ex. Allegro from Sonata No.2, 1907).
Čiurlionis painted seven pictorial sonatas: Sonata No. 1 (Sonata of the Sun, 1907), Sonata No. 2 (Sonata of the Spring, 1907), Sonata No. 3 (Sonata of the Serpent, 1908), Sonata No. 4 (Sonata of the Summer, 1908), Sonata No. 5 (Sonata of the Sea, 1908), Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars, 1908) and Sonata No. 7 (Sonata of the Pyramids, 1909). The artist named them by numbers (the literal titles were adapted later), which shows him as being of modern thinking. Čiurlionis’ pictorial sonatas can be associated with a theory of synesthesia, the marriage of music and art, that branded the early 20th century as well as Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”). At the same time, Čiurlionis’ pictorial sonatas embody an original approach to the issues of synesthesia. The Lithuanian artist applied to painting principles of the musical composition, which have associations with the structure of musical forms (such as sonata, fugue or prelude). He united various motifs from reality, different spatial levels and moments in time, as well as contrasting symbolic images into a single compositional system (cycle), based on the dynamics of the rhythm (Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, Finale). Čiurlionis created a certain system for synthesising the principles of music and painting, based on generic correspondence: the volume of musical sound corresponds to the intensity of colour and outline, musical tempo corresponds to the plastic-linear rhythm, whereas the particular part of the musical composition corresponds to the position of a painting within the cyclical structure.
Čiurlionis’ painting was rendered more abstract by the application of the structural and compositional elements of music. Nevertheless, none of the so-called ‘musical’ paintings could ever be considered a totally abstract work of art, for he was always concerned with idea of the cycle, its ‘plot’ communicated through symbolic links between separate motifs. The ideas of his paintings are generalised (journey, creation of the world, ruler of the world, element of nature, cosmic order), linked with mythology, Lithuanian legends, fairy tales and folklore. Čiurlionis’ thought is often philosophical and symbolic, structure of the composition – abstract, while details of the painting fairly concrete. This contradictory triad is united by his unique principle of synthesising painting and music, and his ingenious graphic-spatial method of abstraction. And all of this stems from his comprehensive knowledge of musical principles.
In 1909, in addition to pictorial sonatas the artist also worked on neo-romantic works that were simpler in terms of compositional structure. Some of them are marked by retrospection characteristic of the fin de siècle epoch (Castle Fairy Tale, 1909; Angel, 1909; The Altar, 1909), while others epitomise the spirit of Lithuanian nature and Lithuanian mentality as understood at the time (Lithuanian Graveyard, 1909; Graveyard Motif, 1909).
Čiurlionis’ painting is a very important affidavit of the level of modernity of Lithuanian art in the early 20th century. In his painting, his experience as a composer, symbolist visions and art nuoveau insights amalgamated into a unique artistic phenomenon encoding the germs of some of European Modernist trends. The compositional structure of his paintings, level of abstraction of motifs, weightiness of plastic element in Čiurlionis’ painting echoes with the beginnings of abstract art epoch in European art of the 20th century. Yet, Čiurlionis belongs to European Symbolism as a follower of the spiritual ideas of the movement, loyal to the movement’s themes and motifs and symbolic treatment of his subject matter. He was especially close to one particular trend in Symbolism, which spread across Russia, Poland and Scandinavia, pursuing the metaphysical dimension through the depiction of nature. This was the tradition of Nordic Neo-Romanticism, a considerable influence on the cultural milieu of early 20th-century Poland and Russia. Čiurlionis’ work embraced, crystallised and interpreted these multiple artistic ideas at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that also have humanist and cultural importance to the community of the 21st century.