Questioning the Sky. Turn-of-Twentieth-Century Life of Lithuanian Artist M. K. Čiurlionis

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was a Lithuanian painter and composer. The fascination of Čiurlionis’ visual imagery lies in its oniric and communicative feel, and by succeeding in its unfication of a spontaneous technique with symbolist themes. Čiurlionis was a synesthete; that is, he perceived colors and music simultaneously, even when just one of the two senses was stimulated. The connection between these two perceptive worlds can be strongly sensed in his work, and in fact many of his paintings bear the names of musical pieces (sonatas, fugues, preludes).

Čiurlionis was born in Lithuania in 1875. His father was the town organist, and as a child Čiurlionis was a musical prodigy: he could play by ear at age three and could sight-read music freely by age seven. His family was very poor, so they could not afford his education. Fortunately, he got financial support by Michal Oginski, who had an orchestral school, and had the opportunity to study at the Warsaw Institute of Music, Poland (it is interesting to note that in those years many educated Lithuanians spoke Polish instead of Lithuanian). In that school, he had the chance to study a wide range of subjects, including natural sciences, astronomy, and philosophy. He became a composer, while earning his living as a teacher. Later on, he decided to study drawing at the Warsaw School of Art, where he distinguished himself for his mature skills.
Very importantly for his poetics, in 1905 Čiurlionis spent his vacation by the Black Sea, on invitation of the Wolman family. He travelled in the Caucasus, painted, and became interested in photography. In 1907 Čiurlionis left the School of Art, sent his works to the First Exhibition of Lithuanian Art in Vilnius, and helped to organise it. For the exhibition he presented the cycles Creation of the World and Storm, the triptych Rex, and eight fluor etchings. These works are central in his artistic production. In the same year, he met the writer and art critic Sofija Kymantaitė, who will become his wife.
Čiurlionis’ artistic production was enormous. He kept composing and performing his music, while his paintings were included in many exhibitions. But he was never free from poverty. At the end of December 1909, his intense creative work and constant material deprivations had undermined Čiurlionis’ health. He was weak and depressed, and constantly away from his family. His daughter Danutė was born during that period, but he never saw her: he contracted pneumonia and died in 1911, 35 years old.

A very rich and documented exhibition is now dedicated to Čiurlionis’ visual production at Palazzo Reale in Milan through Feb 13, 2011. The exhibition, called Čiurlionis. Un viaggio esoterico 1875-1911 (watch a beatiful video presenting the exhibition here), is held in collaboration with the Čiurlionis National Museum of Kaunas, Lithuania, and Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta.

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