​Diaspora: Scattered and (Dis)Integrated

with 

Povilas Gumbis

Leaving behind what you know and crossing water to the uncharted could be a disorienting and frightening experience. And it doesn’t get easier if that unknown happens to be London, with its ever-present howling sirens and deafening underground rail squeals. But this is obviously just me projecting my intolerance for intense volumes, and not an attempt to objectively define something as multidimensional as England’s capital. In other words, it is my subjective experience as an international student from a far quieter Lithuania.
But how do other members of the diaspora navigate within London? And how does art mediate these experiences? How does this ever-increasing relocation of people define culture as such?
This column is a space to explore questions of identity which become acute once one is removed from their roots, making it an inquiry that is subjective at its core. The eclectic nature of the format will directly mimic the complex web of interactions that is at the heart of the diaspora experience.

Two Lithuanians Walk Into the Dulwich Picture Gallery: An Exhibition Review of M.K. Čiurlionis’s Between Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Čiurlionis, Mikalojus Konstantinas. News, 1904/05, pastel on paper, 64.2 x 90.7 cm. M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

It was my second weekend in London that I decided to visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery and its currently open Between Worlds – a solo exhibition of the works of M.K. Čiurlionis, a Lithuanian artist of the early 20th century. At the time, London still felt very cold, distant, and even rather hostile to me. I barely knew anyone. At the risk of sounding too dramatic I will nonetheless share, how, at the time, I really treasured the first few moments after waking up, when you are still trying to hold onto the soft touch of last night’s sleep – an embrace whose time could vary between a couple of seconds or, if you are lucky, a couple minutes. It is the ignorance of those ephemeral breaths that is so sweet – the ignorance that guards the chambers of the mind from any and all stress inducing thoughts.

 

It thus only seemed natural to alleviate these feelings of alienation by immersing myself in something that would allow me to recapture a homely atmosphere that was of integral need at the time. A natural occurrence, I imagine, to all those who left their homes for faraway places of opportunity. Between Worlds thus seemed like the perfect place to be – an antidote to homesickness and a shelter to a rootless identity. Furthermore, I found myself and Čiurlionis as being very alike, as both of us are Lithuanians that now find themselves on the other side of the North Sea. I was thus hoping that the Čiurlionis’s exhibition and the way that it is treated will reflect my own experiences as a member of the Lithuanian diaspora.

 

Maybe that is why I went to exhibition with a predisposition that I am going to hate it. That is, I was already projecting my personal experience onto the exhibition without even seeing – that is how deeply personal it was. There was also this inherent defensiveness about going to see Lithuanian art as a Lithuanian in a foreign institution that not only houses, also takes full control of the show’s display (the curator of Between Worlds is Kathleen Soriano, who is British). ‘How can a foreigner even attempt such an arrogant task of presenting such an important figure of my own cultural heritage back to me?’ is but an example of the many narcissistic questions that accompanied me as I stepped over the threshold of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

 

Upon entering M.K. Čiurlionis’s exhibition Between Worlds, the visitor should experience the title quite literally. The endless sense of space created by the towering arches of the main hall, its octagonal roof-lanterns, which douse the works of art with an abundant amount of natural light, allow the eyes to take the full advantage of everything that the crimson red walls and its golden framed pictures of the Old Masters can offer. With Čiurlionis, one gets the complete opposite. Small and dimly lit rooms (this area of the gallery is titled ‘Small Picture Gallery’ quite fittingly), in which the narrow passages do not allow to capture the totality of the exhibition with a single gaze. Further contrast in light between the two spaces is achieved through the dark hues of green and violet wall paint. The minuteness of the space also carries over into the display, with small canvases comprising the majority of the exhibition. The titular worlds that we find ourselves between are those of Western opulence and Eastern European frugality, between the visible Self and its obscure Other. And it is this unintentional yet nonetheless evident dichotomy that translates onto the show’s presentation.

 

The structure of the exhibition is straightforward: we follow Čiurlionis’s artistic development chronologically with the accompaniment of thematic structure (‘Abstraction’, ‘Music’, ‘Zodiac’, etc.). The display is very similar to that of the permanent exhibition of the M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Lithuania, Kaunas (which also lent all the artworks for the Dulwich show), as they too are displayed in a linear manner. However, it is only the addition of themes as structuring units that is new. The result of this is three-fold: one, it allows for a more comprehensive understanding for a first time viewer, to whom Čiurlionis’s abundance of references (which can be rather esoteric sometimes) become more easily digestible; two, the abstract nature of the themes allows for an easier placement of Čiurlionis within the ‘universal’ context, where, for example, hints of abstraction in his work allow for a discourse in the canon of Abstract art; third, the artworks of Čiurlionis become rather one-dimensional, as grouping of them under a single theme naturally allows for diminished amount of analytic perspectives.

 

The introductory text gives a condensed portrait to the person behind the work: talented composer turned painter, whose foray into art only lasted 8 years due to his premature death at just thirty five; a well-regarded figure in his native Lithuania, whose folklore features prominently in his work, yet someone who was not able to enjoy commercial success during his lifetime; a cosmopolitan that was well educated in Poland, who lived in Russia, was familiar with both new scientific discoveries as well as re-emerging lessons of until then forgotten spiritualism. Following this introduction, the acquaintance with Čiurlionis continues through his early works. One such example is News (1904/5) [Fig. 1]. Created with pastel on paper, the artwork offers a vibrant colour range. Unlike oil paint, pastels do not leave much room for error, as the colours are blended directly on the surface of a painting. This gives the work its sense of immediacy, as if the artistic process began with an intense vision that was then passionately transferred onto the paper. Pastels were therefore an excellent medium for Čiurlionis, as not only did they give an authentic feeling to his fantastical and immersive visions, but it also required less tools to work with, making it practical for an artist who struggled to make ends meet. Financial hardships, also featured, as mentioned, in the introductory text as well as the visual dichotomy between the Main Hall and the Small Pictures Gallery, cast Čiurlionis into the role of an ‘outsider’. This, I would argue, not just delineates him to the fringe, but completely abandons the ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ binarism of the West for a totally different model which I will discuss later in the text.

 

Now back to the painting. The juxtaposition of light on the left and dark on the right structures the composition while also providing the narrative. The curved form of the bird mimics the outline of the mountain, thus positioning the bird to be an entity of both the sky that it occupies and the earthly realm from which it originates. Such a reading could give an adequate introduction to Čiurlionis, as it provides an entry into the individual through his working methods while at the same time highlighting the themes of mythology that were prevalent throughout his career. However, the museum label declares that the curvilinear form of the bird is just like the hacek (ˇ) symbol from the artist’s surname.[1] I find this to be nothing more but an unnecessary fixation that has hints of exoticism. On the one hand, it is understandable why a western institution would be so adamant about finding a signature, as the concept is ingrained within Western tradition. Nevertheless, I do not think that the search for this sign of self-determination would be fitting for the works of Čiurlionis, as his artistic practice was based on national folklore, mythology, Eastern symbolism and scientific discoveries of the at the turn of the nineteenth century resulted in a cacophony of references that denies the notion of a self-imposed author in exchange for the authenticity of the fantasy. Hence why Čiurlionis’s decision to never sign his works fits within his goals as an artist.[2]

 

Following along the thematic structure of the exhibition, the curatorial eagerness to bring Čiurlionis as close to the Western canon as possible becomes evident through its comparative methods. One artist that is brought up continuously is Wassily Kandinsky, defined here as the pioneer of abstract art. Although such probing into how art history is written and the inequalities in who gets to write it might be commendable for the courage to be self-critical – Dulwich is a Western institution after all, and thus part of the Western hegemony that has gripped the field for centuries – it is nevertheless a mere pretence that still holds dear to the concepts of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ without challenging their existence. Such questions as ‘[w]hy did a personality of such scale and talent undeservedly end up on the fringes of Western art?’ can be answered, according to Lithuanian art historian Antanas Andrijauskas, only if we decide to undertake the complex task of rewriting modern art history and challenging its unshakable mythology.[3] Between Worlds simply follows the Western narrative and finds content in certain edits here and there.

 

Polish academic Piotr Piotrowski takes up the challenge. According to him, the typical East-West relationship is based on the latter ‘provid[ing] canons, hierarchy of values, and stylistic norms’, while the former has to ‘adopt them in a process of reception’.[4] This relationship between the centre and the periphery is labelled as ‘vertical art history’.[5] To contest it, Piotrowski suggests a ‘horizontal art history’, permitting more equality in the relationship between the spheres by placing Western art history next to all the other art history narratives.[6]

Firstly, this theoretical exercise denies the Western claim as the de facto universal epistemology. Secondly, by positioning all these narratives as equal, we allow for a dialogue between them, followed by hitherto unavailable points of view - we can now look at the ‘centre’ through the ‘periphery’ and see how the former is not as stable as how it tries to present itself. ‘The centre’, in Piotrowski’s words, is thus ‘cracked’. [7]

 

Even though Dulwich peers through the cracks of the Western narrative by implying not only that Čiurlionis preceded Kandinsky, but might have even influenced him, it nevertheless merely attempts to restructure the vertical hierarchy. The attempts to fit Čiurlionis within the myriad of labels and themes borne out of Western narratives result in the evaporation of Čiurlionis’s uniqueness. Čiurlionis the abstractionist à la Kandinsky, Čiurlionis the Art Nouveau artist à la Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Čiurlionis the symbolist à la William Blake – the identity of the Lithuanian is stretched into all directions, resulting in a contingency which denies a solid ground to firmly place his artistic identity as authentic. Čiurlionis never narrowed himself down to a single school. Dulwich Picture Gallery, however, through its use of thematic structure and constant comparison, attempts to define Čiurlionis by the labels of the Western canon, making this attempted insertion of the artist into the Western art history a backwards operation that should instead focus on freeing him from the West’s epistemological shackles and directly challenging its hegemonic role within art history.

 

Between Worlds does not merely imply the binarism imbued in the works of Čiurlionis. Whether knowingly or not, it is also a delineation between the world of Čiurlionis and the one in the main hall inhabited by the Old Masters. The M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum in Lithuania has a slightly different title to the exhibition, the literal translation of which would be ‘Surrounding Worlds’.[8] Whereas the word ‘between’ references an undefined spatiality that is neither here nor there, ‘surrounding’ has a hint of equivalence to it, that both emphasizes the relationship to the other, but at the same time is an entity existing in and of itself. ‘Between’ suggests a binarism that could be suffocating due its limitations of either one or the other, whilst ‘surrounding’ brings with it the notion of limitless possibility of the ever-expanding number of worlds and their narratives.

 

Hopefully, I was able to define what is at stake with Between Worlds from an art historical perspective. Furthermore, I hope that it is clear as to how the issues I found with the exhibition could be extrapolated and attributed to my experience as a member of the Lithuanian diaspora. However, if the later objective did not prove itself to be successful, allow me, as a kind of post-scriptum, to indulge myself in an anecdote.

 

I spent more than two hours inside the exhibition, walking front and back time and again. After accumulating all the textual and visual information I had a second go, but this time I did not take what was given to me at face value and instead tried to look for things to critique. Later, with all my wonderful insights now depleted, I went through it again, but this time with the accompaniment of Čiurlionis’s music provided by the Dulwich’s app. Now my pace was slower, compelled so by the dreamy melodies of the compositions. With hands behind my back, my chin held high, I began a stroll as one usually does whenever their time does not belong to anybody else but themselves. I reckon this emanated a sense of affiliation, because not too long after I was inquired about the closest toilet by a couple under the assumption that I was an employee of the gallery. Even though I was misidentified, I nonetheless felt very delighted by the encounter. At that moment I felt that I belonged somewhere. Here, in a place I have never been to before, in a city that has only began to introduce itself to me and I to it.

 

The aforementioned couple was British, and so were many other viewers. I did hear a couple of Lithuanian voices as well. There was also a young Lithuanian male that tried to (according to my own assumption) impress his non-Lithuanian female companion with a treasure trove of ‘did you know?’ facts about Čiurlionis and Lithuania in general. Since I did not eavesdrop on their conversation too long, I would not be able to tell you how successful this showcase of knowledge was. But what did seem like a triumph was the existence of the dialogue itself. And here I use dialogue in a very broad manner that does not relate just to the last example. It is the dialogue of many different ethnicities and nationalities co-existing in the same place, unafraid to ask questions and engage with one another – even those that lead to misidentifications and a few awkward laughs. This allows for a possibility to both find out and acknowledge the limitations in our points of view. It also leads to the acceptance of what might be perceived as ignorant in the other. This is how I experienced Between Worlds – as an invitation to start the dialogue with the other. I only hope that institutions like the Dulwich Picture Gallery are also open for a conversation, because it is also the other that needs to be given a voice. Even if to say that no, it does not know where the toilet is.

Bibliography

Andrijauskas, Antanas. ‘Musical Paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Modernism’. Music in Art 37, no. 1/2 (2012), pp. 249–64.

Lieponė, Jurgita. ‘Milijonus eurų galintys kainuoti M.K. Čiurlionio darbai klastojami, į Kauną atkeliauja prašymai juos atpažinti’. 15min. May 15, 2019. https://www.15min.lt/kultura/naujiena/vizualieji-menai/milijonus-euru-galintys-kainuoti-m-k-ciurlionio-darbai-klastojami-i-kauna-atkeliauja-prasymai-juos-atpazinti-929-1143038 

M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art. “Exhibition of M.K. Čiurlionis Creation in London.” https://ciurlionis.lt/activity/branches/m-k-ciurlionis-national-museum-of-art/exhibitions/exhibition-of-m-k-ciurlions-creation-in-london/ [Accessed: 08/10/22]

Piotrowski, Piotr. ‘Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde’. Europa! Europa?: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent, edited by Sascha Bru, Jan Baetens, Benedikt Hjartarson, Peter Nicholls, Tania Ørum and Hubert van den Berg (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2009), pp. 49-58.

Soriano, Kathleen, Alexander Moore, ‘Introduction’ in M.K. Čiurlionis Between World Exhibition Audio Tour, 2022, audio guide).

Footnotes

[1] It is interesting to note, that on the gallery’s website, the hacek in Čiurlionis’s surname is typed in a different font than the rest of the letters. This would mean that the font the gallery uses does not have the letter ‘č’. Even though I am not suggesting a change in font as it is ingrained into the brand of the gallery, it is nevertheless interesting as to how these questions of exoticism and homogeneity become visible even before one steps foot into the exhibition.

[2] Jurgita Lieponė. ‘Milijonus eurų galintys kainuoti M.K. Čiurlionio darbai klastojami, į Kauną atkeliauja prašymai juos atpažinti’. 15min. May 15, 2019. https://www.15min.lt/kultura/naujiena/vizualieji-menai/milijonus-euru-galintys-kainuoti-m-k-ciurlionio-darbai-klastojami-i-kauna-atkeliauja-prasymai-juos-atpazinti-929-1143038. The only exception to the rule would be Čiurlionis’s Finale (1908), also featured in the exhibition. However, this artwork, unlike the rest, carries a very direct influence (it being Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831)) that borders on being a reinterpretation of the motif. However, in this case I would argue that signature that is infused in the painting is an attempt to navigate artistic autonomy whilst engaging with canonical works of art, whose sheer size threatens to overtake the artist. It could also be interpreted as an effort to carve a space for oneself within the global history of art, which would especially be pertinent to an artist that was well travelled, yet only locally accepted.

[3]Antanas Andrijauskas. ‘Musical Paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Modernism’. Music in Art 37, no. 1/2 (2012), pp. 249. The exhibition’s curator Kathleen Soriano, answering why specifically Čiurlionis and why now, responds: ‘[…] because there’s so many artists that we never get to see and we never get to look at that we really ought to know and understand. And they are hidden away in their countries and I’ve always felt passionately, and it’s fantastic that Dulwich Picture Gallery feels the same, about revealing those artists’. (Kathleen Soriano, Alexander Moore, ‘Introduction’ in M.K. Čiurlionis Between World Exhibition Audio Tour, 2022, audio guide). Soriano’s response rather directly puts the blame on the countries themselves, as if they are greedily hoarding their cultural treasures with no desire to share its riches with the rest of the world. Furthermore, institutions like the Dulwich Picture Gallery imagine themselves as these vanguards of an inclusive art history, putting the responsibility on their sole shoulders to ‘reveal’ the artists that have been hidden, thus drawing parallels to the colonial excavators. But the integral objective should be to figure out the actual, more complex reasons as to why were these artists hidden so that in the future same mistakes would not be repeated.

[4] Piotr Piotrowski. ‘Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde’. Europa! Europa?: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent, edited by Sascha Bru, Jan Baetens, Benedikt Hjartarson, Peter Nicholls, Tania Ørum and Hubert van den Berg (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2009), pp. 51.

[5] Ibid., 51.

[6] Ibid., 54.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art. ‘Exhibition of M.K. Čiurlionis Creation in London’. https://ciurlionis.lt/veikla/padaliniai/m-k-ciurlionio-dailes-muziejus/parodos/m-k-ciurlionio-kurybos-paroda-londone/ [Accessed: 08/10/22]

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