L’Art Magique: Boundaries and Beyond

with 

Beatrice stankeviciute

In what ways is art ‘magic’ you may ask. Well, let me put a spell on you! Be ready to be enchanted and transported somewhere beyond – unveiling the fascinating realm of dreams, desires, and magic, more ambiguous and complex than the naked eye can see. L’Art Magique: Boundaries and Beyond is a column that traces the esoteric interests of the Surrealists and explores the shift from historical thinking to magical thinking. Looking at the mystical undercurrents present within various artistic practices, both past and current, with a strong interdisciplinary focus, L’Art Magique examines the perception, reception and response to such attitudes while also touching upon deeper concepts that emerge within them – politics, gender, race, identity, cultural conditions and the environment – especially when thinking about the return of the magical in the contemporary. Come celebrate the unexpected, the imaginary, the revolutionary, the irrational, the poetic, the fantastical – the unworldly is the world we’d rather live in after all. Wouldn’t you agree?

The Muse of Music and Folklore – The Fantastic, The Cosmic and The Spiritual 

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: Between Worlds at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

by Beatrice Stankeviciute | 28 October 2022

Fairy Tale (Fairy Tale of Kings).jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Pasaka (Karalių Pasaka) – Fairy  

Tale (Fairy Tale of Kings), 1909, tempera on canvas (photo source: 

https://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/pasaka-karaliu-pasaka/) 

Rather unexpectedly, when seeking shelter from the temperamental autumn weather at one of the tube stations – always leaving you ‘scorched’, but nonetheless a sought-after place for every Londoner – I stumbled upon an exhibition poster for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Imagine my surprise when I realised that the exhibition promoted was on none other than the national pride I grew up studying and admiring, credited as the most famous Lithuanian painter and composer who ever lived – Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911).  

Gallery view.jpg

Gallery view: Between Worlds: Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (photo source: https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1785139/exhibition-of-lithuania-sgenius-artist-ciurlionis-opens-in-london) 

Čiurlionis’s artworks rarely leave the borders of Lithuania due to their fragile nature and conservation concerns. The question of who may have, and may not have, heard of the Lithuanian art scene and its profound cultural history might also be at play here. Between Worlds is the first retrospective exhibition in the UK on Čiurlionis, with over 100 of his works decorating the gallery walls (many shown in the UK for the first time), mere meters, steps even, away from European Old Masters like Poussin, Rubens and Rembrandt. To be part of such a company is quite an honour for Čiurlionis.  

The serendipitous and in a sense surreal encounter inspired me to write this first column on the artistic practice of Čiurlionis in the hope of introducing his artistic language and cultural heritage to the wider international public while exploring and celebrating the anthropomorphic nuances that emerge within the paintings. 

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.jpg

S. Fleury, Portrait of Mikalojus 

  Konstantinas Čiurlionis (photo source: 

http://ciurlionis.eu/en/mkc-foto-3/) 

Čiurlionis was seen as a pioneer for European symbolism, whose works became the precursors of abstract painting. Over his fairly short, but extremely profound, artistic career (he died of pneumonia at 35 years of age), he composed about 400 pieces of music and created about 300 paintings (not counting many literary works and poems), often drawing on symbolism, abstraction, and mysticism. The artistic universe of Čiurlionis has often been considered in similar terms to Turner’s paintings, particularly in relation to the inspiration drawn from the natural world and its connection to the individual. However, the nature that emerges in Čiurlionis’s works is entirely different. Inspired by the beautiful Lithuanian countryside – surrounding hills, forests, lakes, rivers, and sea – Čiurlionis created masterpieces that bridge mythology and reality, environment and its natural elements, acquiring the power to transform and be transformed. To morph and connect – to dissolve into one, emphasising the multiplicity of interpretations, which juxtapose the contemporary spectator at the threshold of intersections (of disciplines, worlds and emotions). 

The Lithuanian countryside and nature were extremely important to Čiurlionis, and the people of Lithuania. Not only as a place reminiscent of childhood and various memories connected to it, but also the Lithuanian folklore that comes from it. The artistic choice to put the landscape in focus needs to be viewed from the political trajectory and the societal conditions that impacted it. Why? Because it was a time when Lithuanians were trying to find (and fight for) their identity under the Russian empire. The notion of defining Lithuanian art was more than significant – it was crucial to unite the nation and guide the Lithuanian art movement. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Čiurlionis’s earliest works from 1903 depict mystical kings and princesses of the past, fantastical creatures and heavenly angels, traces of Lithuanian pagan culture, elements of cosmogony – gods, planets, stars, all accompanying the artist throughout the rest of his creative path and emerging as portrayals of immersive storytelling – the world of fairy tales. 

Serenity.jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Ramybė (Serenity), 

  1904-05, pastel and charcoal on paper (photo source:  http://www.ciurlionis.eu

Between the years 1907 and 1909, a period of his mature artistic virtuosity, Čiurlionis created works of a completely new plastic-aural form – pictorial sonatas, preludes, fugues – orchestrating a union between music and art. ‘Visual music’, however contradictory and ambiguous it may sound at first, was, and continues to be, something many artists explore, creating a sensory synthesis that traces an alternative history of abstract art. Baudelaire, one of the poets and critics beloved by the surrealists (André Breton praising Baudelaire in Le Surréalisme et La Peinture, 1928, as a champion ‘of the imagination’), wrote a poem that best summarises the goal of modern art: ‘Les parfums, les couleurs et les son se répondent’ (Correspondences, 1857), translated by Richard Wilbur as ‘all scents and sounds and colours meet as one.’ It is precisely how I would describe Čiurlionis‘s artworks – a veil of mysticism covering the earth in misty hues, warm at times, cold at others, and rhythmic structural tones that echo far and close. Čiurlionis himself wrote: ‘I imagine the whole world as a great symphony: people are the notes and my far Druskininkai – the beautiful melodies.’ 

Various artists drew upon the phenomenon of music to name their paintings as a metaphor, not fully convinced that they could synthesise colour, music and movement. Among Whistler, Kandinsky, Kupka and other contemporaries, Čiurlionis was one of the artists who gave musical titles to his paintings. Yet, Čiurlionis broke out from the limitations, exploring the potential of music to the fullest. Especially interesting and unconventional is the way in which he adapted musical structures for visual compositions, inscribing musical rhythms (allegro, andante) within the painterly. Repeated in compelling patterns, these compositional arrangements both consciously and unconsciously influenced the vividness and content of imagined journeys through form and colour, connecting music and paint, time and space. Musical rhythms also echo in the artistic choice to paint a series of works – cycles – and a great number of diptychs and triptychs. Now, London has a chance to see the fascinating diptych titled Žvaigždžių Sonata (Sonata of the Stars), one of my favourite works by Čiurlionis. Organic forms become abstracted, simplified, and reformed, moving from figuration to abstraction and entering the realm of metamorphoses. Where are you transported when you look at the painting? What emotions does the different colour palette evoke? Can you feel the warmth of the sun and hear the crashing waves? Or is it the clouds that swim over your  head, inviting you to dream? 

Allegro (Sonata VI).jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 

Allegro, from cycle SONATA VI Žvaigždžių Sonata Sonata of the Stars), 1908, tempera on paper (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/sonatavi-zvaigzdziu-sonata-allegro/) 

Andante (Sonata VI).jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 

Andante, from cycle SONATA VI Žvaigždžių Sonata (Sonata of the Stars), 1908, tempera on paper (photo source: http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/sonatavi-zvaigzdziu-sonata-allegro/) 

Čiurlionis transformed relatively small and corporeal experiences into colossal and universal ideas, falling back on the metaphysical praxis and, consequently, provoking us to ask about our place in the cosmos, and take a step away from the world we know to one we usually do not dare enter. Moving from micro to macro interchangeably, his work is eternalised. It is not subject to time and space or the limitations of the mind – it is a creation that touches the earthly and the bodily while entering the highest worlds of the spiritual and opening the landscape of the mind and heart. The powerful emotional, sensory, and ethereal tendencies are heightened by the multi-planar painting techniques and complex compositions that construct a distinctly abstract, yet harmonious narrative – a luring visual melody of the world(s). 

Rex.jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, REX, , 1909, 

tempera on canvas (photo source: 

  http://ciurlionis.eu/paveikslas/rex-5/) 

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this temporary exhibition takes place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – a cultural institution situated away from the buzzing streets, howling sirens and hordes of people, always rushing somewhere – everywhere and anywhere. Even if it is not the Lithuanian countryside, pulsating with mystical energy and history, the nature surrounding the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Dulwich Park) – where earth is clothed in fiery red and golden leaves, where birds are chirping, kindly reminding us of a different, much calmer pace of life – evokes a deep sense of serenity, inspiring one to contemplate, to listen and to transcend – beyond the hills and forests, beyond the fleeting moments. 

Fairy Tale.jpg

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Pasaka (I), Fairy  Tale (I), from Triptych Cycle, 1907, tempera on 

paper, (photo source: 

  https://ciurlionis.eu/en/painting/gallery/) 

Note: For those of you who are interested in discovering the spellbinding world of 

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the exhibition is on until March 2023! The Dulwich Picture Gallery is also organising a Gallery Late in February (if you can wait that long) – just show up with your Courtauld student ID for free entry! 

Links:  

M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds at the Dulwich Picture Gallery - 

https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-

on/exhibitions/2022/september/mk-%C4%8Diurlionis-between-worlds/ 

Between Worlds: Late - https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/afterhours/2023/february/between-worlds-late/ 

M. K. Čiurlionis - Miške (In the Forest - Symphonic Poem) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7_6TaDRlOs M. K. Čiurlionis - Jūra (Sea - Symphonic Poem) – https://youtu.be/TQeub39T-9c