The essential place to get to know the Lithuanian artist is the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art in Kaunas.
As the 143rd birthday of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875 – 1911) is approaching, we put together a list of interesting facts about the creative genius that only lived for 35 years but left a legacy in three fields – music, art and literature. Let’s count this as fact number one, shall we?
Born in Varėna, a town in the south of Lithuania, Mikalojus Konstantinas was the eldest of nine children of church organist Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Adelė Marija Magdalena Radmanaitė-Čiurlionienė.
In 1894 – 1899, Čiurlionis studied at the Warsaw Institute of Music. In addition to piano and composition, Čiurlionis also studied harmony, the theory and history of music, the natural sciences, astronomy, philosophy, numismatics and mineralogy, and attended a choir class.
This is the most popular portrait of Čiurlionis. Source unknown
The artist’s favourite authors were Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Bolesław Prus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy. He published numerous articles about music and art.
In 1904, Čiurlionis began his studies at the Warsaw School of Art, where he studied drawing, sculpture and painting. In the first half of 1907, he painted 50 works! In total, he left approx. 300 paintings and graphic works. The artist, as a true symbolist, tended not to explain his works, as his words would limit the art itself.
Čiurlionis is considered one of the pioneers of abstract painting. A famous American art critic Carmio von Wiegand raised a question about who should be considered first, Čiurlionis or Kandinsky. His article discussing Russian art before 1911 was published in Encyclopaedia of Arts (New York 1946). An Estonian art critic Alexis Rannit also stated that Kandinsky only painted his first abstract work in 1911, while abstract and semi-abstract works by Čiurlionis are dated as early as 1904.
A few short lines are not enough space to present the music of Čiurlionis. His symphonic poems and other multi-layered works became the basis for numerous composers of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, neither “Miške” (In the forest) nor “Jūra” (Sea), two of his best-known works, were performed while the composer was still alive. Listen to the compositions here.
Čiurlionis died from severe pneumonia in 1911; poor health had been his permanent problem, including cases of depression that blocked his creativity.
“Rex” (1909) is considered the most expensive work by Čiurlionis and was valued at €1,000,000 by insurers. “Fairy Tale of the Kings” and “Sonata of the Sea” were valued at €500,000 each. It’s almost impossible to buy a work by Čiurlionis at an art auction, and if you’re offered one, there’s high chance it’s a fake.
Fairy Tale of Kings. Tempera on canvas. 1909.
Rex. Tempera on canvas. 1909.
The most prominent monument for Čiurlionis in Kaunas (maybe even the world!) is the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art, part of the museum complex that is also home to the Vytautas the Great War Museum. The building was finished in 1936, and the Čiurlionis part was thoroughly restored in 2017. Adjacent to the main building is the Čiurlionis gallery built in the 1960s and renovated in 2002. Čiurlionis museum has several departments in the city, including the Kaunas Picture Gallery, Žilinskas Gallery of Art and a few memorial houses of famous artists. One of the departments is in Druskininkai, where the artist lived. In total, the museum owns around 500,000 exhibits.
National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. Picture by Mantas Matulionis
Sofija, the wife of Čiurlionis, was a literature and art critic, as well as a woman rights activist, was an essential figure in the interwar Kaunas, where she and their daughter Danutė moved in 1911, after her husband’s death. During the WW2, Sofija saved Jewish children from the Holocaust by hiding them in her home. Sofija, together with daughter Danutė and her husband Vladys Zubovas, was bestowed the title of The Righteous Among The Nations. She died in 1958.
The legacy of Čiurlionis was heavily criticised by the Soviet press, especially during the reign of Stalin, but also after his death. Chaotic, decadent and bourgeois were the among the softer words used in numerous articles by Soviet art critics. This went on until the middle of the 1950s, until, slowly but surely, concerts of his music began to pop up here and there.
Serenity. Pastel on paper. 1903
In 1964, a group of Lithuanian alpinists travelled to the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan (then Tajik SSR) and climbed to several peaks. The first one (5794 m) was named after Čiurlionis – the name was offered by pianist Aleksandras Jurgelionis, member of the expedition. Two more successful climbs were dedicated to a poet Kristijonas Donelaitis and Lithuania. More Lithuanian names popped up in Pamir mountains during later expeditions.
In 1975, the 100th birthday of the rehabilitated artist was celebrated in full swing. His works travelled all around USSR (which was also criticised for dangerous conditions for precious artworks), and reproductions as far as Ethiopia, Uganda and Mauritius; notes about the appreciation of art by Čiurlionis were sent from places as distant as Nepal and New Zealand. A centennial exhibition was opened in Tretyakov gallery in Moscow. People were queuing overnight to see 66 paintings by the Lithuanian master.
In the same year, a Soviet astronomer Nikolai Chernykh discovered a stony Eunomian asteroid from the central regions of the asteroid belt, approximately 9 kilometres in diameter. In 1984, it was named 2420 Čiurlionis.
Before the restoration of our independence in 1990, the art of Čiurlionis also managed to travel to Germany and Belgium; in 1988, the former Japanese PM Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Lithuania and was deeply touched by the world of Čiurlionis. One thing led to another, and, in 1992, a grand exhibition was opened in Sezon Art Museum in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.
The Sun is Passing the Sign of Aquarius. Tempera on paper. 1906
In 2015, a Čiurlionis sculpture was revealed in Minsk, Belarus. Its authors are Kaunas-based artists Virginija Venckūnienė and Jonas Venckūnas. You can find the statue at the beginning of Čiurlionis street.
In 2018, the works of Čiurlionis, as well as other Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian painters, were exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The exhibition called “Wild Souls” was part of the Centennial celebrations of the Baltic countries.
There’s also a street and a bridge named after Čiurlionis in Kaunas. In Vilnius, there’s the Čiurlionis house on Savičiaus street, the prestigious Čiurlionis Art School and a very important street; in Druskininkai - a monument by Vladas Vildžiūnas.
Mantautas Krukauskas created music, sound and vision composition “2420. Sonata of the Stars”, dedicated to Čiurlionis and his diptych “Sonata of the stars. Allegro. Andante” (1908), which was first performed in 2005.
In Kaunas on Saturday, September 22nd? Join the Čiurlionis birthday party, explore his paintings, listen to his music (yes – there’s a music hall in the museum, and even if there’s no performance scheduled, you can go ahead and ask museum staff to play a CD for you) and get to know the symbolic world of the Lithuanian genius. Of course, you can do it any other day of the year, too, as long as the museum is open, but the more friends come, the merrier the party, right?