Since its advent in the West in the early 1920sth century, various artists have been cited as the founders of abstract art, from Kandinsky and Mondrian to Hilma af Klint.
Also in the mix is the relatively little known Lithuanian, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the subject of a new retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. His work rarely leaves his homeland and this is his first ever major exhibition in the UK.
Čiurlionis’ main career was actually that of a composer, and his pieces of music are still played with reasonable frequency all over the world today. He only devoted himself to art in the last eight years or so of his life (before his death in 1911 from pneumonia, at the age of 36).
Based on the evidence from this show, it definitely made those years count. The coupled paintings, Alba I And Alba II, from 1906, are typical of the way in which Čiurlionis attracts the viewer with his rich production of signs, and only after a long effort is it possible to distinguish a sort of figurative scene. In the case of both Alba I And Alba II, the scene is a long, empty, light-flooded avenue that cuts through a forest.
Indeed, abstraction in Western art has gradually emerged over the course of many years rather than being the giant leap forward of a single painter. And, as the subtitle of this exhibition, Between worlds, implies, Čiurlionis would still be better classified as a symbolist rather than an abstract artist. He shared a Symbolist passion for escaping to other dream worlds.
In the triptych, Hymn I-III, in the central image we can distinguish an omnipotent divine figure, seated on a throne, calmly observing the universe below him. The scene is dominated by the reflection of the sun’s rays on his golden crown.
Čiurlionis preferred to paint in tempera rather than oil, and the result is a subtlety of color that lends itself well to suggesting the afterlife.
In recent years, the artist’s paintings have become more figurative, in part a product of his growing nationalism. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had offered a glimmer of hope to many Lithuanians like Čiurlionis who sought independence from the Russian Empire and, towards the end of his short career, commonly included motifs such as armed knights on horseback. These alluded to Lithuania’s struggle for freedom and gave his art a political flavor that did her no favors.
Overall, however, this is a welcome exit for an artist, whose paintings, quite undeservedly, remain less well known than his piano pieces.
MK Čiurlionis: Between Worlds, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from Wednesday to March 12, 2023; dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk 020 8693 5254