Sunday, 25 December 2016


“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (Polish: Mikołaj Konstanty Czurlanis; 22 September [O.S. 10 September] 1875 –10 April [O.S. 28 March] 1911) was a Lithuanian painter, composer and writer. Čiurlionis contributed to symbolism and art nouveau and was representative of the fin de siècle epoch. He has been considered one of the pioneers of abstract art in Europe. During his short life he composed about 400 pieces of music and created about 300 paintings, as well as many literary works and poems. The majority of his paintings are housed in the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum in Kaunas, Lithuania. His works have had a profound influence on modern Lithuanian culture.

Čiurlionis was born in Senoji Varėna, a town in southeastern Lithuania that at the time was in the Russian Empire. He was the oldest of nine children of his father, Lithuanian Konstantinas, and his mother, Adelė née Radmanaitė (Radmann), who was descended from a Lutheran family of Bavarian origin. Like many educated Lithuanians of the time, Čiurlionis's family spoke Polish, and he began learning Lithuanian only after meeting his fiancée in 1907.

In 1878 his family moved to Druskininkai, 50 km away, where his father went on to be the town organist. Čiurlionis was a musical prodigy: He could play by ear at age three and could sight-read music freely by age seven. Three years out of primary school, he went to study at the musical school of Polish Prince Michał Ogiński in Plungė, where he learned to play several instruments, in particular the flute, from 1889 to 1893. Supported by Prince Ogiński's 'scholarship' Čiurlionis studied piano and composition at Warsaw Conservatory from 1894 to 1899. For his graduation, in 1899, he wrote a cantata for mixed chorus and symphonic orchestra titled ‘De Profundis’, with the guidance of the composer Zygmunt Noskowski. Later he attended composition lectures at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1901 to 1902.

He returned to Warsaw in 1902 and studied drawing at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts from 1904 to 1906 and became a friend with a Polish composer and painter Eugeniusz Morawski-Dąbrowa. After the 1905 Russian Revolution, which resulted in the loosening of cultural restrictions on the Empire's minorities, he began to identify himself as a Lithuanian. He was one of the initiators of, and a participant in, the First Exhibition of Lithuanian Art in 1907 at Vileišis Palace, Vilnius. Soon after this event the Lithuanian Union of Arts was founded, and Čiurlionis was one of its 19 founding members.

In 1907 he became acquainted with Sofija Kymantaitė (1886–1958), an art critic. Through this association Čiurlionis learned to speak better Lithuanian. Early in 1909 he married Sofija. At the end of that year he travelled to St. Petersburg, where he exhibited some of his paintings. On Christmas Eve Čiurlionis fell into a profound depression and at the beginning of 1910 was hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital ‘Czerwony Dwór’ (Red Manor) in Marki, Poland, northeast of Warsaw. While a patient there he died of pneumonia in 1911 at 35 years of age. He was buried at the Rasos Cemetery in Vilnius. He never saw his daughter Danutė (1910–1995).

Čiurlionis felt that he was a synaesthete; that is, he perceived colours and music simultaneously. Many of his paintings bear the names of musical pieces: Sonatas, fugues, and preludes. In 1911 the first posthumous exhibition of Čiurlionis’s art was held in Vilnius and Kaunas. During the same year an exhibition of his art was held in Moscow, and in 1912 his works were exhibited in St. Petersburg. In 1957 the Lithuanian community in Chicago opened the Čiurlionis Art Gallery, hosting collections of his works.

In 1963 the Čiurlionis Memorial Museum was opened in Druskininkai, in the house where Čiurlionis and his family lived. This museum holds biographical documents as well as photographs and reproductions of the artist's works. The National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Art in Vilnius was named after him in 1965. Čiurlionis inspired the Lithuanian composer Osvaldas Balakauskas’ work ‘Sonata of the Mountains’ (1975), and every four years junior musical performers from Lithuania and neighbouring countries take part in the Čiurlionis Competition.

Čiurlionis's name has been given to cliffs in Franz Josef Land, a peak in the Pamir Mountains, and to asteroid #2420, discovered by the Crimean astrophysicist Nikolaj Cernych. Čiurlionis's works have been displayed at international exhibitions in Japan, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. His paintings were featured at ‘Visual Music’ fest, an homage to synaesthesia that included the works of Wassily Kandinsky, James McNeill Whistler, and Paul Klee, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2005. A commemorative plaque has been placed on the building of the former hospital in Marki, Poland where Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis died in 1911. Čiurlionis’s life was depicted in the biographical feature film ‘Letters to Sofija’ directed by Robert Mullan in 2012.

The precise number of Čiurlionis musical compositions is not known – a substantial part of his manuscripts did not survive, while others presumably perished in the fire during the war, or were lost. The ones available for us today include sketches, rough drafts, and fragments of his musical ideas. The nature of the archive determined the fact that Čiurlionis’ works were finally published only hundred years after the composer’s death. Today, the archive amounts to almost 400 music compositions major part of which are works for piano, but also significant works for symphony orchestra (symphonic poems ‘In the Forest’ and ‘The Sea’,  overtures, cantata for choir and orchestra), string quartet, works for various choirs (original compositions and Lithuanian folk song arrangements), as well as works for organ.

The painting above is 'Angels' (aka 'Paradise') of 1909.

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