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Lithuanian stories of Mikalojus Čiurlionis

The genius of East European symbolism, artist, composer, writer and photographer, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was brought up in Polish culture, but became an outstanding creator of Lithuanian culture, an artist who “discovered the exclusiveness of the national spirit”. How did this happen?

Ciurlionis was born on September 22, 1875 in the town of Orana (modern name Varena) in Lithuania. His childhood and youth passed in Druskeniki (modern Druskininkai) and Plungyan (modern Plunge). In Plungyan, he played in the orchestra of Prince Oginsky, which began his musical career. During his studies at the Warsaw University of Music, Čiurlionis revolved in Polish bohemian artistic circles. Brought up in the cult of Polish literature (he adored the Slovak) and for most of his life not knowing the Lithuanian language, Ciurlionis, under the influence of the growing Lithuanian national movement, decided to devote himself to creating national Lithuanian art.

How to become a Lithuanian in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century?
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, portret, fot. CC / Wikimedia Commons
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, ph. SS / Wikimedia Commons
Although Čiurlionis’s parents were Lithuanians (his mother still had German roots), they spoke Polish at home, and юрurlionis himself called himself a Pole for a long time. Back in 1901, he wrote to a friend: “We must be proud that we are Poles. […] The land, freedom, and the right were taken from us, but our language, our hearts, our intelligentsia cannot be taken from us even by force. ”

A few years later, he completely devoted himself to the creation of Lithuanian national art and became a Lithuanian.

The case of Čiurlionis is not unique, a similar choice of national identity was made by many figures of the Lithuanian revival, in particular, Stanislav Narutovich and Oscar Milos. Timothy Snyder writes that Lithuanian figures at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries often came from the Polish-speaking gentry, who “returned to their roots”, uniting with the common people. Many of them knew the Polish language better than Lithuanian. They came to “Lithuanianism” gradually, often rejecting the national identity chosen by their grandfathers and parents.

The Ciurlionis were not a gentry. Polish was spoken in the family and taught children because of the cultural ambitions of Čiurlionis. His father was an organist. Юрiurlionis began to learn Lithuanian late, being thirty years old, under the influence of his fiancée, and in the near future, his wife Sofia Kimantaite, a member of the Lithuanian national movement in Poland (Sofia studied in Krakow).

According to the assumption of the researcher of his work, Rasa Jukiene, the role of the catalyst could be played by Churlionis’s personal insults on national soil. For example, the news that his symphony “In the Forest” will not be performed at the concert, since the author is not a Pole, probably wounded the young composer. Zhukienė adds: “Perhaps this is one of the reasons that he began to study painting and made his choice in favor of Lithuanian identity.”

Symbolism, abstraction, surrealism?
M. K. Čiurlionis, “Litewski cmentarz”, 1909, fot. zbiory Narodowego Muzeum Sztuki M. K. Čiurlionisa w Kownie
M.K. Ciurlionis “Lithuanian Cemetery” (“Zemaiti Cemetery”), 1909, ph. collection of the National Museum of Art. M.K. Čiurlionis in Kaunas
Čiurlionis painting is most often referred to as symbolism, but its symbolism is radically different from the work of Jacek Malczewski, the famous Polish symbolist artist.

Ciurlionis did not create, like Matejko, large-scale historical paintings. He, unlike the Polish Symbolists, did not draw figurative paintings under the influence of literature or philosophy. He sought to find the essence of the national spirit, first of all, in his native landscapes (researchers point out primarily to the surroundings of Druskenik and Palanga on the Baltic coast), as well as in ancient Lithuanian legends and mythology.

His paintings were so original and so ahead of their time that they often seek parallels outside of symbolism. Ciurlionis is often called the forerunner of abstract painting and even surrealism, and in addition, it is believed that he significantly influenced artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

Was Čiurlionis the first abstractionist?
M.K. Ciurlionis, Andante z cyklu “Sonata słońca”; Źródło: Wikimedia Commons
M.K. Ciurlionis “Andante” (from the cycle “Sonata of the Sun”), source: Wikimedia Commons
The most famous “abstract” works of the artist include the cycle “Creation of the World” (1904-1905) and the unfinished diptych “Sonata of the Stars” (“Sonata of Chaos”, 1908). According to the researcher of the artist’s work, Juozas Pivoriunas, in both cases the theme – creation of the world – determined the abstract nature of the paintings, which could cause associations with abstract art (which as a current in art did not exist at that time).

The same researcher notes that perhaps the closest thing to pure abstraction is eight paintings by Čiurlionis from the series “Winter” in which “he rather tried to paint winter as such, rather than a specific winter landscape.”

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