Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis. His works have given rise to a great controversy among art critics and historians about the genesis and evolution of modern art movements, about the artists role in the contemporary epoch. Ciurlionis lived a very full, though brief, life.
Ciurlionis was born on September 22, 1875, in Varena, a small town in Lithuania. He inherited his inclination for music from his father, a church organist. The picturesque, wooded country round Druskininkai, where the family lived, the fairy-tales and legends of the region of DzTIkija, the melodious Lithuanian folk songs gave him his first aesthetic impressions and stimulated his imagination.
The boy’s musical talent came to the notice of Dr J. Markiewicz from Warsaw, a friend of the family, who used to spend his summers in Druskininkai. Later on, during the years of study, J. Markiewicz took a lively interest in Ciurlionis and gave him every possible support. In 1889, through J. Markiewicz’s assistance, the fourteen-year old youth was admitted to the school of music in Plunge, which belonged to M. Oginski, one of the greatest lovers and patrons of music of that time. Here Ciurlionis took flute lessons, played in the orchestra, made his first attempts at composition. In his spare time he strolled in the surrounding country, making drawings. His talent and diligence attracted the patron’s attention and won him his favour. M. Oginski sent Ciurlionis to the Warsaw Conservatoire.
At the conservatoire (1894-1899) Ciurlionis studied piano under Prof. A. Sygietynski and composition under Prof. Z. Noskowski. He also studied the theory and history of music, attended the choir class. He worked much and with inspiration. During his holidays at home, in Druskininkai, the young composer was drawn to Lithuanian folklore, admired the lyricism of Lithuanian folk songs, the beauty of their harmony. His first compositions are marked by an organic blend of neoromantic professional music with the musical heritage of his native land and his individual world perception.
In 1899, having successfully finished his course at the Warsaw Conservatoire, Ciurlionis made a step which proved to be decisive for his future career : he declined an offer to hold the post of director of the Lublin School of Music. It could have given him material security but would have hampered his creative aspirations. From then on, like Icarus, reaching out for the sun, Ciurlionis began his ascent to the heights of creation. His powers, however, were soon to wane, exhausted by constant privations and blows of everyday life.
Ciurlionis was well aware that his musical education was far from perfect. In 1901, encouraged and suported by M. Oginski, he went to the Leipzig Conservatoire, where he studied composition and orchestration with K. Reinecke and S. Jadassohn, famous professors of that time.
All his free hours were filled with the attractions of Leipzig’s cultural life : he went to the Gewandhaus concerts conducted by the great A. Nikesh, was an avid opera-goer, studied the scores of the symphonic works of R. Strauss and H. Berlioz at the library. On his return to Warsaw and later to Lithuania, Ciurlionis made careful studies of the music of J.S. Bach, R. Wagner, M. Reger and particularly R. Strauss. These studies enriched the technique of his neoromantic compositions with new discoveries of a more elaborate rhythm and polyphony. Ciurlionis affinity to A. Skriabin and the great representatives of the Russian neoromantic school was quite obvious. In Leipzig Ciurlionis came to realize that music alone could not satisfy all his artistic interests. He read avidly, visited the Leipzig Museum where he became interested in the symbolic pictures of A. Boklin, the works of M. Klinger and some of the Sezessionists. He was fascinated by the Polish romantic poets, admired the works of F. Dostoyevsky and L. Tolstoy, read V. Wundt, F. Nietzsche, A. Schopenhauer, J. Ruskin, studied Indian philosophy.
Ciurlionis’ versatile artistic interests found their outlet in his music. Original, troubled and full of contrasts, it reflects his boundless fantasy and laconic thought. In 1912, V. Karatygin, a well-known Russian theatre and music critic, wrote about Ciurlionis’ musical compositions /with the exception of the symphonic poem ’’The Sea” which was given its first performance only after a quarter of a century had elapsed since the composer’s death/ : ’The influence of P. Tchaikovsky or F. Chopin or R. Strauss is no longer felt in this music. Ciurlionis immediate contemporaries felt that after one more, final effort, a new and original composer would rise to his full stature.
But Ciurlionis was not destined to make that final step : he was impeded by the multi-faceted nature of his own genius. The first, truly talented Lithuanian professional composer, Ciurlionis abandoned music and from 1907 till his death devoted himself to painting.
From Leipzig Ciurlionis went back to Warsaw and settled there for several years. From then on all his creative energy was directed towards painting. He attended a painters studio, and in 1904, together with his friend E. Morawski, entered the Art School of E. Stabrowski. Among the teachers of the school were F. Ruszczyc, K. Krzyianowski and K. Tikhy. Here Ciurlionis evolved a style of his own. His love of drawing cherished from the childhood was enriched by new searches of colour, characteristic of the Warsaw Art School of that period. Ciurlionis made a lot of drawings and painted his first symbolic pictures. A talented composer, a graduate of two conservatoires, Ciurlionis soon won popularity among his new colleagues, the painters. His paintings were awarded at students exhibitions. They attracted attention of a wider public at the exhibition of the Warsaw Art School held in Petersburg in 1906.
Ciurlionis came to art when he was twenty-nine. Of the years spent at the Warsaw Art School he has said : ”1 was taught nothing I wanted to learn. ” In his cycles of paintings which are full of eternal motion and dynamism and which are based on the principles of musical compositions, Ciurlionis came closest to the realization of his aspirations.
Already in his first tempera and pastel paintings /1903-1906/, the cycles “Creation of the World”, “Funeral Symphony” and “The Flood”, “The Music of Forest”, the artist achieved an accomplished symbolic expression. The troubled images and visions of the painter are subordinated to a profound idea through rhythmical arrangement, subtlety of colours and a clear, compostional bird’s eye view. Plants come to life, pines turn into beautiful fairy-tale maidens, rocks and hills become demons with hypnotic eyes to tell the beauty of life and the perpetual regeneration of the world. The charm of these pictures to the observer lies not only in the beauty of their symbols ; their attraction stems from the intensity of lust for life and the magic spell which emanates from them.
In 1905 Ciurlionis spent the summer in the Caucasus together with his friends E. Morawski and the Volmans. In
1906 he travelled round Europe. In search of new aesthetic impressions he went to Prague, Dresden, Nurenberg, Munich, Vienna, visiting the famous art galleries and admiring the grandeur of the cultural heritage of the past.
In Warsaw Ciurlionis was drawn into the lively cultural life of the city; was influenced by the growing revolutionary and national movement of 1905. Here he met with progressive Lithuanian students who being concerned with the future of their national culture, hoped to rally all Lithuanian creative intellectuals, scattered in various countries. Ciurlionis suddenly came to the realization of his national identity, of his obligations to his native country and made a decision which he described in a letter to his brother Povilas: “Do you know anything about the Lithuanian Movement? I’m resolved to devote all my former and future works to Lithuania.” In the autumn of 1906 M.K. Ciurlionis learned about the First Exhibition of Lithuanian Art which was to be held in Vilnius. He supported the idea wholeheartedly, sent his works to the exhibition, himself went to Vilnius and settled there, becoming one of the most prominent organizers and leaders of Lithuanian cultural life. Driven by his inner convictions, he organized the subsequent exhibitions together with other enthusiasts, participated in them actively, tried to promote the musical life of the Lithuanians. He instituted a music section under the Society of Lithuanian Art, planned to open a musical library, a conservatoire, organized Lithuanian choirs, song competitions, supervised their artistic standards, wrote articles on music and art.
The cultural life of Vilnius at that time was not very favourable for a true genius : he lacked broader vistas for the powerful sweep of his wings. In the hope of finding a more conducive atmosphere to his creative aspirations, Ciurlionis went to St. Petersburg several times. He brought with him his pictures, showed them to M. Dobujinsky and A. Benois, took part in the exhibitions arranged by the members of “Mir Iskusstva” the World of Art, tried to settle in St. Petersbug for a longer period. All through that time he continued to paint fervently. Though welcomed and supported by the Russian artists, Ciurlionis failed to provide himself with a minimum of sustenance in this northern city, the capital of czarist Russia. He was too impractical, felt at a loss, greatly missing the warmth of his home. Exhausted by strenuous creative work and constant need, he broke down physically. His untimely death came at the moment when he was on the threshold of a complete spiritual victory – recognition in Moscow and St Petersbug, Vilnius and Riga, Paris and other cities.
1907-1909 were the most prolific years in Ciurlionis’ life. During that period he painted his best works with musical titles, “Signs of the Zodiac”, the cycles of his fairy-tales, fantasies and grand compositions in which he strove to penetrate into the secrets of human existence and the universe. His cycles known as sonatas of ’The Sun”, “Spring”, “The Serpent”, “Summer”, “The Sea”, “The Pyramids” and “The Stars”, with their lyrical metamorphoses and visions inspired by the Lithuanian landscape, convey a restless dramatic tension, the struggle of elemental forces and the ever-serene victory of the good. The artist was highly sensitive to the collisions of Nature. In his quest for a more complete conception which would encompass both the Universe and Man, the artist rejected the traditional forms of art. He attempted to paint the flux of time, to record the dynamics of impressions. They cannot be treated as a direct projection of music on canvas. They are rather a happy concatenation of the musical and pictorial imagery born in the artist’s imagination. Each viewer reads the message of his pictures in his own, purely personal way. Inspired by these features of Ciurlionis’ painting, M. Gorky said: “Is romanticism alien to realism ? Can a realistic picture do without plasticity, rhythm, musicality and similar features ? I like Ciurlionis precisely because he makes me think as a writer.”
The greater part of Ciurlionis’ paintings, particularly those of his last years, consists of separate contrasting pictures and whole cycles. In some of them “Rex”, “Demon”, “Prelude”, “The Fairy-Tale of the Castle” the painter rises or descends far beyond the limits of man’s earthly existence. In others “Friendship”, “The Fairy-Tale”, “The Fairy-Tale of Kings”, “Winter” he returns to the realm of the good, where fairy-tale cities, fantastic altars, the sun and other luminaries are but personified concrete elements of the nature and the creative powers of the native land. The peculiar blend of original fantasy, visions and poetic imagery enabled the artist to transcend the concrete, earthly existence only to feel still more acutely the joy and meaning of his return to it. A great deal of his creative energy was spent in an attempt to understand and create an artistic conception which would embrace the union of man and nature, the dialectic opposition of the good and the evil. Ciurlionis did not seek abstract spirituality. The power of his imagination and spirit was a stepping stone in his efforts to comprehend and control the forces of reality. Take, for example, his popular painting ’’The Fairy-Tale” which shows an apocalyptic vision : a black bird – the premonition of future wars, – hovers above mankind, a baby playing with a dandelion. The universality of Ciurlionis’ art, his concrete understanding of the world, his artistic imagery, conceived in terms of philosophical categories, make his works significant for our contemporaries who have to face many menacing aspects of the present epoch.
Based on real life and folk creative mentality, enriched by the experience of other nations and by universal human issues, Ciurlionis’ art, according to M. Dobujinsky, “transcends the boundaries of national art”.
Lithuanian, Russian and Polish cultural heritage, absorbed into his art, enriched and stressed the national and folk character of his works. To establish Ciurlionis’ place against the immensity of the art trends of the 20 th century one must assess his role in Soviet Lithuanian art, in present-day life. Is Ciurlionis only the starting point in the birth of national art, the subterranean spring which has nourished the turbulent stream of contemporary Lithuanian culture? Is he but a remarkable fact of history, the pride of the nation, of little significance for contemporary art?
His original and highly individual paintings stand out so conspicuously in Lithuanian art, both old and new, that one gets an impression of a huge star, lonely and beyond our reach, which sparkled and went out suddenly, without leaving a trail. Though his links with the trends of modern West European art are evident, his paintings as well as his music are above all manifestations of the world conception of his own people. This feature links Ciurlionis with the evolution of Lithuanian art all through the 20th century
From the rich diversity of folk art Ciurlionis singled out its musical and verbal varieties. He probed the characteristically folk mode of thinking, noted for its metaphoric conception of reality, primitive synthesis, broad and comprehensive symbolic imagery expressed in original and romantically poetic formulae. Another feature that fascinated Ciurlionis in these two varieties of folk art was their abstract character : both the word and the sound – the building material of literature and music – in their nature are somewhat detached from the material essence of the real world. The facile truth of the latter was not always acceptable to the musical and extremely subtle personality of the artist. He had grown in the artistic atmosphere of musical rather than visual art. He had always had glimpses of another world, impalpable and lacking any definite form, which was shimmering to him behind the visual side of reality. In the expanses of that strange world flourished the humanistic ideals of Ciurlionis, artist and musician. Advancing far beyond the narrow, utilitarian aims and ambitions of the society of his times, these ideals glorified the good, the virtuous and the humane. A projection of the artists response to the world and nature, these ideals are expressed in visions of tremendous artistic impact, born by a powerful imagination. Ciurlionis saw nature as a homogenuous and harmonious system. Its every component, be it a tiny blossom of a dandelion, a spray of bubbles broken at the crest of a wave, or distant stellar worlds, glimmering in the infinite space of the sky, is an inseparable part of the universe, of existence.
Ciurlionis’ relationship to folk art resembles a journey across the territories of several kindred spiritual continents. In his aesthetic experiences the painter welded their different artistic structures into a homogenuous system based on a complex phenomenon of man’s life. This helps to explain the “double” image we often encounter in his pictures: an island with distant reflections of camp fires, brooding on the quiet surface of the lake, becomes a fantastic monster; flocks of clouds turn into ships, castles and other images. The use of poetic metaphor in painting, however, could hardly have given us ground for treating his art as something unique and singular. If Ciurlionis had stopped within the limits of this symbolism, however poetic and subtle, but literary in its essence, today we would justly call his painting dilettante. It is superficial to identify Ciurlionis with symbolism. He went beyond the philosophical guidelines of the symbolists. The symbolic associations in his pictures do not constitute the only and principal means of expression. On the other hand, Ciurlionis’ pantheistic conception of nature cannot be interpreted as the only proof of the influence of folk art on him. It lacks that extremely pure, archaic onesidedness, so clearly manifest in folk art. Ciurlionis’ art communicates the social interests and intellect of a 20th century man, a citizen, who feels a strong affinity to the naive logic of folk mode of thinking because of its spirituality and poeticism. He is also greatly moved by the lyrical, concentrated and deep emotional experience which is particularly prominent in ancient Lithuanian folk songs. In the monotony of their rhythm Ciurlionis sees a great, noble graveness,” which to him is a characteristic feature of a truly great and profound art. These qualities of Lithuanian folk world perception inspired his musical compositions and found an original expression in the colouring of his pictures. One colour, one particular tone prevails in them. Its modulations are made up not of contrastive dramatic leaps, but of subtle lyrical interplay of hardly perceptible nuances. Ciurlionis’ painting is marked not only by intuitive manifestations of the artist’s musical nature, keenly sensitive to the charm of folk melos. Gradually the artist began to seek for such a plastic structure of his pictures which would synthetize the poetic metaphor, the flow of a musical motif, growing into a polysemantic polyphony of images, and purely pictorial means of expression. The most eloquent sample of Ciurlionis’ style, marked by a thoughtful and consistent fusion of various structural elements, are his cycles of pictures with musical titles. Owing to the painter’s talent, these elements have not turned into artificial and mannered schemes but have grown into a unified plastic image of perfect simplicity, communicating the author’s message and making the intended impression.
Ciurlionis has said more than once that traditions of folk art are ’’the primary manifestation of creation”. Folk art to him was not a primal image ; it haunted and fascinated the artist who returned to it each time as if wishing to test himself and
enrich his works. In his cycles ’The Signs of the Zodiac”, ’’Creation of the World”, ’The Fairy-Tale of Kings”, in his graphic works and his drawings the images of folklore are blended by the artistic imagination of the painter and coloured in soft hues. They communicate to us the experience of the musician and painter, his romanticism, and above all, his thought. This amalgam of thought and fantasy neither fits into the old rules of art nor can it serve as the foundation for new trends. It is a unique entirety of authentic art, directed in its aesthetic humanistic essence towards new worlds and new discoveries of human genius. Every new trend can find in Ciurlionis’ art qualities that are characteristically its own but which cannot be canonized.
Ciurlionis’ works, created at the peak of his career, reveal one more feature of his artistic personality. His first pictures are marked by a very original conception of space, producing the impression of infinite expanse and limitless time. The pictures take on a quality of cosmic visions and deep inner concentration. In the further growth and elaboration of the polyphony of the plastic image, space and time merge into a new entity, corresponding to the philosophical idea of the world’s entirety and the constant change of its face. The simultaneous occurence of thought in space is perceived intuitively rather than expressed by words. This deeplying expanse of Ciurlionis’ artistic thinking led some art historians to interpret his painting as mystic and prophetic. In the light of the cosmogonic theories of his time Ciurlionis’ pictures could be looked upon as a direct illustration of these theories, fantastic and mystic in its essence. Today, however, from the perspective of more than a half of a century, we discover in his art an immense power of foresight, which not only brings Ciurlionis closer to the world view of our contemporaries but which also makes him more modern than most of the contemporary painters in their inability to outgrow the limits of a prosaic imitation of reality. Ciurlionis’ mode of thinking can be called a true modern phenomenon for it is a manifestation of such faculties of thinker, philosopher and artist which are vital for the artists of the present.
Ciurlionis is not alone in his greatness. He had predecessors and contemporaries in Lithuanian folk art, in the Vilnius School of Art, in the Russian group ”Mir Iskusstva”. He has talented followers in Soviet Lithuanian art, in its overall relation with man’s existence and the life of its nation, in the international character of our culture. Having amassed in his works the principal treasures of art – an original mode of thinking, an international world perception and the spirit of folk art which he felt very keenly, – Ciurlionis is important not only as the most prominent figure of the art of the past but also as the harbinger and the motive force of contemporary culture.
Ciurlionis’ art once again confirms the truth that every artist should be the recorder of the social consciousness of his epoch, the barometre of the spiritual atmosphere of his period, that he should seek the highest generalization of his response to reality, project it through his own personality, sublimating it to an ideal. This ideal, like BiliUnas’ ’The Beacon of Happiness”, should attract people to itself. Ciurlionis is the ideal of the artist as Lenin understood it: to act as a leader of the broad masses of people. The progressive ideas expressed in Ciurlionis’ works, their human content, their historical authenticity and contemporaneity are the features that we, representatives of Lithuanian culture, cherish most. Theories of aestheticism of art, of its flight from reality and its isolation were alien to Ciurlionis. He acknowledged that art had a social function, clearly realized the necessity of a dialectic link between the artist and the viewer, between the composer, the performer and the listener. In this close union he saw a further guarantee for the progress of art and music.
Like a star glowing briefly in the sky of our culture, Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis blazed a wide trail for Lithuanian art. He is not only a manifestation of national art: he probed the eternal problems of existence, vital for all mankind and each individual. Ciurlionis is known in Moscow and Odessa, in Leningrad and Berlin, in Tokyo and Paris. Roads in the Franz-Joseph archipelago, the summit in the Pamir, schools and streets bear his name. From Lithuanian, that tiny patch on the globe, Ciurlionis, the man who dreamed of the good and the beautiful, is still fostering like the suns he has painted, the world of harmony which Soviet people build by their feats of work and creative endeavour.