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Introducing Mikalojus Ciurlionis: Painter and Composer


The astonishing Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911) lived only to the age of 36, but like Vincent van Gogh, with whom he has many parallels, he accomplished a prodigious amount in his tragically short lifetime. No less than 300 musical compositions and an equal number of paintings have been attributed to him.

Fugue, from the diptych Prelude (1908). Tempera on paper, 62.2 cm. x 72.6 cm.

(Photo by Photo of the painting by Arunas Baltenas)


Unlike most of the artists usually featured in this column, Ciurlionis (pronounced chur-lee-OH-nis) regrettably cannot be seen (or heard) in the original in New York City at this time. However, I can recommend an excellent online introduction to his paintings and music. And earlier this fall Gabrielus Alekna (B.M. ’98, M.M. ’00, D.M.A. ’06, piano) gave a series of recitals playing Ciurlionis’s piano compositions.

Nearly all of Ciurlionis’s original paintings are housed in the M.K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas, Lithuania, which I was privileged to visit during my participation in a September conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused entirely on Ciurlionis. This event, commemorating the centennial of the artist’s death, brought together art historians, musicologists, performers, and theoreticians from a dozen European countries, as well as the U.S. For me, an art historian teaching at Juilliard whose first love was music, it was exhilarating to discover an international community of scholars studying the interrelationship of music and visual art. 

If you are not familiar with the name Ciurlionis, you are certainly not alone; this artist deserves much greater recognition than he has received. But the fact that the conference attracted so many respected authorities proves that he is far from unknown; the points of view presented were varied and sophisticated.

Ciurlionis was a visionary, a Romantic, a Symbolist, and a Modernist. He was also remarkably ahead of this time in many ways. There is evidence that he explored 12-tone methods long before Schoenberg and Webern, for instance, and some claim him as the first abstract painter. Whether or not he was first in either of these categories, one thing is certain: he is the only artist I have come across who was equally at home painting and composing music. 

The conference was held in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater, and it included 44 presentations covering many divergent points of view ranging from general questions about the artist’s place in the art world of fin-de-siècle Europe to analysis of individual works of art. There were papers about the reception of Ciurlionis and why and how he has been perceived. Others dealt with semiotics, tradition, politics, social circumstances, and cultural contexts. Before long, a comprehensive picture of him began to emerge.

Born in a town that was then part of the Russian empire in 1875, Ciurlionis studied piano and composition in Warsaw from 1894; he lived there intermittently until 1905 though he took some time to study counterpoint at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1902. During the Warsaw years, he composed piano fugues and variations, as well as sonatas and other works for piano, a string quartet, and a cantata for choir and orchestra. From 1902 to early 1904, he also attended the Warsaw School of Drawing. Like many Lithuanians at the time, his first language was Polish, not Lithuanian. However, in his short lifetime, he learned the language, returned to Lithuania, and embraced Lithuanian culture; today he is considered a Lithuanian national icon. 

Ciurlionis never stopped composing or painting; each medium informed the other. Pianist Rokas Zubovas has just recorded his great-grandfather’s complete piano works, and he has credited the artist’s evolution from a Romantic composer to a less traditional and more forward-looking one to his visual explorations. 

Some examples of Ciurlionis’s use of musical techniques in visual art are apparent in his sonata paintings, which he assembled into series in the same way that one would construct a sonata in music. For example, Sonata of the Sea(1908) corresponds to his musical cycle The Sea of the same year. The painting is made up of three panels, “Andante,” “Allegro,” and “Finale,” and recent computer renderings have shown literal similarities between musical and pictorial lines as well as in textural analogies. However, as fascinating as Ciurlionis’s technique is, it should be remembered that for him, subject matter always transcended purely technical issues in his paintings. 

Ciurlionis’s stance between Romanticism and Modernism in music, and between Symbolism and Abstract Expressionism in art, has posed some problems in terms of his work’s reception. During the height of Modernism, his compositions appeared old-fashioned but they also offended traditionalists by being avant-garde as they verged on atonal and dodecaphonic. In the 1950s, Stalinists condemned his work for its lack of accessibility to the masses. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Ciurlionis became a symbol of that bright spirit of the newly independent Lithuania as his art and music both have a basis in Lithuanian folklore and also contain universal themes.

One of the high points of the conference was a lecture-performance by the world’s greatest authority on Ciurlionis, Vytautas Landsbergis, who is a composer and pianist, as well as a world-renowned politician. Landsbergis was the leader of the Republic of Lithuania when it achieved its independence from the Soviet Union. He spoke about the legacy of Ciurlionis and also about the similarities—and differences—between musical and visual arts. In musical manuscripts, he pointed out, the editor often has to interpret what the composer meant, whereas a painting stands on its own. Performers also have “some rights” in terms of interpretation. Music, he said, does not reside in scores, but “lives in sound.” He demonstrated this by playing some of the composer’s piano music for us—music that has clearly become part of him. Like Ciurlionis’s paintings, which appear infinite in scope, the music had no apparent beginning or end. It seemed to have begun before the first bar and extended beyond the last one. Ciurlionis wrote “variations,” Landsbergis said. “The work one is playing is only one of many possible variations.”

Many famous individuals have been struck by the genius of Ciurlionis. One was Stravinsky, who obtained one of his last paintings, The Ballad (1909), which was also called Black Sun. When the French writer Romain Rolland chanced upon his art in a Russian magazine, in 1930, he wrote that the experience was “like a lightning bolt for me.”

The legacy of Ciurlionis is astonishing in some unexpected ways as well. I learned while visiting the Jewish Museum in Vilnius that Ciurlionis’s daughter and son-in-law had been instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust. Zubovas, his great-grandson, told me one of these girls had immigrated to Israel and later become his own beloved piano teacher.

The Juilliard library possesses scores of Ciurlionis’s music, and will soon be getting some books with his artwork. The Vilnius conference demonstrated conclusively that the art and music of Ciurlionis belong not just to Lithuania, but to the world.