It’s not uncommon to associate different creative modalties at times, such as specific music tracks or passages with certain paintings, but very few of us are truly synaesthetic. This week’s Symbolist painter is unique in being a major composer too, and a self-confessed synaesthete who appeared unable to dissociate music from painting. As far as my quest for Symbolists goes, he is also pure gold: he’s the Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911).
This article looks at his career with a small selection of his paintings; in tomorrow’s article I show a series of thirteen paintings which he made in 1905-06 to tell the story of the Creation.
Čiurlionis was born in a town in the then Russian Empire, now part of Lithuania. His father seems to have been musical, and was the town organist. Mikalojus Čiurlionis was a musical prodigy, whose talent was spotted early. He was soon sent off to a specialist music school, from which he was awarded a scholarship to study the piano and composition at Warsaw Conservatory between 1894-99. After that, he studied further at Leipzig Conservatory, returning to Warsaw in 1902.
He then started to take visual arts more seriously, drawing and painting prolifically from about 1903.
Funeral Symphony 6 (1903) is the sixth in a series of paintings which he made at the start of his career. Like many of his paintings, it takes its title from music, and perhaps should be seen as a movement rather than a single image.
He painted Morning in 1903-04, by which time his work was floridly Symbolist.
Čiurlionis attended the Warsaw School of Fine Arts between 1904-06, where he was taught by the Symbolist Kazimierz Stabrowski. Like Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands, Čiurlionis immersed himself in Theosophy and spiritual aspects of art and music.
Seashore (1905) may well have been an imaginary landscape, but the majority of his paintings show what are intended to be physical objects. The greatest exception to this is his series of paintings of The Creation of the World (1905-06), which I show tomorrow.
With the 1905 Russian Revolution, cultural groups including the Lithuanian people gained more freedoms, and Čiurlionis started to identify as a Lithuanian, even though at that time he spoke little of the language, and his first language was Polish.
The Sun is Passing the Sign of Sagittarius (1906) is one of a series showing the constellations, in this case the archer taking aim at a large eagle-like bird from a mountaintop.
Čiurlionis painted Winter 2 in 1907.
A geometrically-regular spider’s web is a strikingly unusual feature in his Finale, the fourth and last in his series Sonata of the Sun from 1907.
That year, Čiurlionis took part in the first exhibition of Lithuanian Art in Vilnius, which was to become its capital city when in attained independence in 1918.
Čiurlionis’ vision of The City 2 from 1908 anticipated ‘science fiction’ visualisations such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis.
Early in 1909, Čiurlionis married Sofija Kymantaitė (1886–1958), an art critic who improved his Lithuanian greatly.
That year, Čiurlionis painted a narrative series apparently linked to folk or fairy tales, of which I show three. Castle Fairy Tale develops one of his favourite themes in these later works, of massive buildings.
Fortress Fairy Tale is a variation on that theme.
Fairy Tale of Kings (1909) is another. I have not been able to identify their literary references, I’m afraid.
More identifiable is his painting of Perkūnas, the Lithuanian version of the Baltic god of thunder, or the Norse Thor (1909), whose thunderbolts are particularly vivid.
Late in 1909, Čiurlionis exhibited in Saint Petersburg. But just before Christmas he developed a severe depressive illness. For this he was taken to a specialist psychiatric hsopital near Warsaw in Poland. Tragically, he developed pneumonia there in 1911, and died on 10 April 1911, at the age of thirty-five.
Despite such a foreshortened life, Čiurlionis had been prolific in his musical composition and painting. It took a century for his compositions to be published, and his paintings are now on display in the National Art Museum dedicated to him in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, and elsewhere.