Art, Antiques & Museums Arts & Culture

‘I saw spring around me, like a glowing princess’

  • February 13, 2023
  • 6 min read
‘I saw spring around me, like a glowing princess’

by Sophie Pretorius

Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current main exhibition, M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds, which opened in September last year and runs until March of this, began during the slow descent into winter and keeps us company now in the quiet darkness just before spring stirs. It is a subtle and fae show displaying a cross section of work from the very short career of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (pronounced Chur-lon-iss), Lithuania’s most famous artist. That said, his work is hardly known at all outside of Lithuania. The show, amongst other things, proves how local our cultures remain, despite promises or threats of a global monoculture. Čiurlionis is better-known as a composer and has that distinct synesthetic style of those gifted in both arenas. The uninitiated viewer might use Kandinsky (who admired Čiurlionis), and what she might know of his life, as a mental hook on which to hang the masses of new information – textual, visual and auditory – which this exhibition offers. 

Having read the steady stream of friendly but gently mocking reviews of this show, I must admit to feeling defensive of Čiurlionis before entering, despite my incomplete knowledge of his work. I understand the need to be snippy and opinionated regarding the ever-revolving door of forgotten historic artists as they are subjected to being pulled up and out and given their fifteen minutes. However,  I doubt any of the exhibition-going public deserve their first introduction to a sincere, depressive mystic to be cast in terms such as ‘bonkers’ and ‘ludicrous’, as they were presented in Time Out. I feel this same defensiveness when William Blake, the most obvious progenitor of Čiurlionis, is being disparaged or mocked. It is to do, I think, with sincerity and softness, and defensive of one’s own lack of defence.

As stated, Čiurlionis was a depressive, and, some sources claim, suffered from bi-polar disorder (though how one gets retroactively diagnosed with this sort of thing, I have never understood). However, unlike many of his fellow symbolists and expressionists (I am using this term very loosely), Čiurlionis only seems to have painted when feeling hopeful, or perhaps painted himself into a hopeful state. 

The exhibition, curated by Kathleen Soriano, is composed entirely of works lent by Lithuania’s National Museum of Art, which in 1944 was renamed the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art. Almost all of Čiurlionis’s surviving visual work is owned by this museum, which has contributed to Čiurlionis’s virtual unknown-ness outside of Lithuania. Perhaps intentionally, the work seems to me to be arranged so that the scenes depicted move from late summer to spring, and throughout the straight passage of the exhibition space, with his snowy winter scenes in the centre. The exhibition covers just over 6 years in which Čiurlionis made the work, before his untimely death of pneumonia in Pustelnik. He created over 300 works of visual art in his lifetime and more than a third of them are on show here. The works are all small and completed mostly in egg tempera on cardboard and canvas, with some works in chalk pastel. It is emphasised throughout the exhibition that this was due to lack of funds. Čiurlionis’s choice of medium entirely dictates his works’ meaning, trite but true. The tempera and pastels, with the exception of the very first work in the show, Rex (Sketches I and II from the diptych for stained glass), 1904 and one of the last, Fairy-Tale. Journey of the Princess II , 1907 (illustrated), are dark, built up in layer upon layer of gauzy pigment, giving them something of a mirage-like- quality. Some of them, like seeing eye pictures, have layers within them, which form shapes if you look long enough. It is not very difficult to see through the eye puzzle though, as the hidden figures are always Rex, the pagan fairy king/god figure, or birds. The wall texts suggest that Čiurlionis may have liked to paint flying birds because his name starts with a paukščiukas; the caron over the C at the beginning of his name. Paukščiukas can be translated as ‘little bird’ in Lithuanian.

All of the works display Čiurlionis’ coming to terms with his ‘Lithuanian-ness’. Lithuania was the last of the European so-called Christian nations to accept Christianity, in 1387, thus their pagan roots were far closer to the surface than in many other places. At the time Čiurlionis was creating art, the Lithuanian people were (re)establishing their national identity, as independent from Russia, and culturally independent from Poland. Čiurlionis grew up speaking Polish, as was the norm for educated Lithuanian people at the time. In his short life he gave much to the nationalist cause. He did this with the help of his wife, Sofija (née Kymantaitė), a powerhouse of folkloric knowledge, political organisation, and general creative ability who taught him the Lithuanian language and history, which he had not been exposed to as a child. Together, they helped found many cultural institutions and groups seminal in reconstructing the artistic identity and separateness of Lithuania. Čiurlionis’s nationalism comes across in his paintings not as bombast or pomp, but in a serene confidence in the beauty of one’s own history and landscape.

Čiurlionis was, in the spirit of the time, also influenced by the mysticism of other cultures. During much of the time that he was painting the works on show in Dulwich, he was attending the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, where he was tutored by the theosophist  Kazimierz Stabrowski (a devotee of Madame Blavatsky). Čiurlionis also expressed a keen interest in ancient Indian Vedas, Egyptian astrology, and the prevailing Japonisme of La Belle Époque.

Dulwich is a long way from anywhere, and for this reason, perhaps, it is best that the mocking words of other reviews might keep away those inclined to view the fantastical only in passing on their way to an eyeroll. However, for those of us who, even through gritted teeth, are willing occasionally to acknowledge our optimism and sincerity, it is worth the two trains and a bus. 

Picture Credit: Fairy-Tale. Journey of the Princess II by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis 1907 


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Sophie Pretorius

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