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2018-08-31 Back to list

The Čiurlionis Code

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis is Lithuania's best-known painter. How well is he known abroad?

“The messages about the jubilee of Čiurlionis are still travelling the world, even today Lithuanians receive information on the attention this artist is getting in Africa – Kenya, Tanzania, Mauricio, Uganda, Ethiopia. […] Locals had the chance to see the reproductions of the artworks. […] We also know about the recent interest in Čiurlionis from the people of Nepal and New Zealand, so life is telling us that the journey of this artist has probably just begun” – this is how the book “Čiurlioniui – 100” [“Čiurlionis turns 100”] compiled by Jonas Bruveris ends. Released in 1977, it reflected the 1975 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The publication notes that the fiestas stretched all over from Lithuania to Japan. “But we shouldn’t accept everything written in that book as absolute truth,” smiles Osvaldas Daugelis, director of the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art. This is the first and only job Osvaldas has ever had, so we could keep cracking the code of the painter/composer together for hours.

M. K. Čiurlionis. Serenity. Pastel on paper. 1903 / 4, Warsaw.

We started the conversation by remembering the metaphysic experience of O. Daugelis’ childhood when he was walking the glass corridor of the M. K. Čiurlionis gallery. Many Kaunasians visited that place as kids, but what if age doesn’t really matter here? When Jean-Paul Sartre stopped in Kaunas for a few hours in 1965, he talked of Čiurlionis too, even though the memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir focus on the sculpture “Rūpintojėlis” [“Pensive Christ”] by Juozas Mikėnas much more. Sitting down with O. Daugelis had us touching on an important trip that the art of Čiurlionis took – the 1992 exhibition at the Sezon Museum of Art, Karuizawa, close to Tokyo, Japan. The then-director Malvydas Sakalauskas had Osvaldas working as a deputy director for science at the time, and the latter says there were more attempts to bring Čiurlionis to Japan before, yet the political situation was always the main obstacle. However, since 1975, when there was a long queue of art admirers waiting through the whole night for the opening of the M. K. Čiurlionis exhibition (66 pieces) in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, up until 1992 – where our story begins, the artworks managed to go to West Berlin (1979, 38 pieces), Duisburg (1989, 17 pieces), Berlin (1991, 5 pieces), Brussels (1991, 5 pieces), Bona (1992, 14 pieces). 165 artworks went to Tokyo, but the more substantial part of the exposition consisted of graphic works, sheet music, letters and so on, with a total of 60 paintings.

Yasuhiro Nakasone, former prime minister of Japan, visited Kaunas as early as 1988, being impressed by the Čiurlionis gallery and the museum of folk instruments – this was the start of the international relationship, where an important role was also played by… a modern fax machine given as a present to the people of Kaunas. The device helped to strengthen the bonds with the Land of the Rising Sun, but it also solved several logistic-linguistic problems that occurred when communicating with Finnish workers who didn’t speak English or Russian and who came here to bring the paintings to Helsinki, where the works continued the trip to Japan. According to the legend of the museum, those problems were addressed by trying to use a small book of Estonian-Russian conversations.

M. K. Čiurlionis. Adoration of the Sun. 1909

There were some Lithuanians that weren’t happy about such a large number of artworks leaving the country – there even was a special jury that decided which pieces can go and which can’t. The paintings were escorted out of Kaunas with the help of armed police officers, and O. Daugelis sat in one of the police cars. Freezing Latvian customs professionals greeted the convoy at the Lithuanian-Latvian border… Exotic? Maybe now it seems so. Back then, everyone worried more about not forgetting to put silica gel in the packages with paintings.

Importas eksportas 20171019 0028

M. K. Čiurlionis and Osvaldas Daugelis

On March 27th, 1992, a talk with O. Daugelis and M. Sakalauskas by Ramutė Vaitiekūnaitė was printed in the “Kauno tiesa” [“Kaunas truth”] newspaper. The respondents then stressed that the organisers of the exhibition “M. K. Čiurlionis: Life and creative works (A Lithuanian mystic and fantast)” consulted with Kaunasians about “every little nuance – lighting, temperature, humidity and other parameters. […] The imperial couple visited the exposition as well, obviously, while the tickets looked like officially published postcards”. Indeed, such attention to details is not uncommon today, so there’s probably no need for a special jury to decide which artworks can leave the country. The printed conversation also had a mention of the fragility and ultra-high importance of Čiurlionis’ pieces being the reason why they never went to factories, kolkhozes, cultural centres in provinces or travelled around the USSR.

Leaving the Soviet reality aside, we’re interested in how the artist was “promoted” behind the Iron Curtain, having in mind that the last time these pieces went abroad before 1979 (when the works went to Berlin) was the 1912 exhibition in London after Čiurlionis’ death. And there are many stories to tell! For instance, one Italian professor who studied in Moscow was brought to see the works in Kaunas cleverly wrapped in a cotton wool jacket, since foreigners weren’t allowed to enter the city. The government didn’t allow for the pieces to go to the 1986 exhibition “Futurismo & Futurismi” in Venice, so fans of Čiurlionis’ talent installed a black room at the exposition hall and hanged some reproductions of his works… People say that one of the organisers of that exhibition who also had an interest in Oskaras Milašius was working on getting a permit to visit Kaunas for ten years. We can mention an earlier event too – the Venice Biennale of 1948 printed an article called “Who was first – Čiurlionis or Kandinsky?” which was harshly criticised by the Russian painter’s widow Nina.

M. K. Čiurlionis. Fairy Tale of Kings. 1909

Basically, the artist was seen around the world pretty much at any point in time, and the fact that there are many different cases of forging his art proves that – even now Osvaldas’ museum gets offers to buy such works from suspicious second-hand auctions. “One time, people brought a “Čiurlionis” painting to the museum, and after close examination, we determined that it was painted on the cover of a publication to celebrate the life of Leo Tolstoy who passed away in 1910. We didn’t manage to spread the word about that painting before they took it away, but later I saw that same piece at some art collection”, Osvaldas explains while we’re hoping that he’ll decide one day to write his memoirs.

So that’s about it on the first independent steps of Čiurlionis’ works abroad. Another important took place in April 2018, when Musée d’Orsay in Paris opened an international exhibition dedicated to the 100th birthday of the Baltic countries titled “Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States”. Initiated by the Latvian National Museum of Art, it was curated by a known expert Rodolphe Rappeti, who, before starting the project, joined Laurence Des Cars – the head of the mentioned Parisian museum – in visiting the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas. After the visit, the list of the pieces by Čiurlionis and other artists that will go to Paris grew dramatically: “We wanted to show the early works of Petras Kalpokas to the guests just for the context, but they loved them so much that we had to agree to their request to bring these pieces as well”. Osvaldas also notes that the exhibition of Baltic symbolism was co-opened with the new season of Musée d’Orsay after the reconstruction, with a symposium, concerts and other exhibitions taking place. The symbolist event was planned for the later part of 2018, but the Parisians decided to change the date to an earlier one, at the time of the season-opening – that’s quite a compliment keeping in mind how busy those prestigious exposition spaces are.”

More than 50 of the 130 pieces of the exhibition that ran for a few months were Lithuanian, with the whole event focusing on mythology, folklore, fantasies, dreams, decadence and visions of the world. The visitors were able to learn more about Čiurlionis, Kalpokas, also Ferdinandas Ruščius, Adomas Varnas, Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Latvian artists Janis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis, Estonians Kristjan Raud, Konrad Vilhelm Mägi and others. The exhibition was supervised by the Art Museum of Estonia, Latvian National Museum of Art and the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art.

“Why do we bother to bring these paintings to the emperor?”, asked some Kaunasians in an unhappy fashion after seeing the convoy ready to export the paintings in 1992. Maybe it’s another legend of Čiurlionis, maybe a concentration of some of the opinions of those days. The situation was very different in 2018 when many Lithuanians went to the exhibition in Paris and believed they also deserve some of the praise for the artworks.

Original article for Kaunas Full of Culture magazine by Kotryna Lingienė
Photos by Donatas Stankevičius

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