Primitive, spiritual and fairytale-like: ‘I cannot fully explain the work of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis’

Museum Belvédère in Oranjewoud shows about seventy works by the Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911) under the title Beyond Heaven and Earth. It is his first solo exhibition in the Netherlands.

Director Han Steenbruggen: “Only after the independence of Lithuania in 1990 did people start to discover Ciurlionis. He is the great hero in his country, which has been isolated from the West for decades. There have been exhibitions all over the world, but not yet in the Netherlands. The most beautiful works, all of which are kept and displayed in the MK Ciurlionis Museum in Kaunas named after him, can now be seen in our museum. It’s wonderful to have someone like that in the house.”

Caught off guard

About ten years ago, Steenbruggen visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. There was a solo exhibition by Ciurlionis. “I didn’t know the artist, but I was completely taken aback. Ciurlionis’ work was closely linked to the symbolism of the early last century, but it also fell considerably outside the framework of that movement.”

“The work was primitive, spiritual, fairytale-like, intellectual and a bit naive. It was also related to folk art. And because it was all painted in a small format, it also had something intimate. I loved the combination of all those aspects. On the way home I realized that in the excitement I had completely forgotten to buy a catalog.”

As it happens, Ciurlionis later faded into the background, because Steenbruggen was busy with exhibitions of international celebrities such as Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz. But during the preparations for the Morandi exhibition, Ciurlionis suddenly reappeared.

“I read a piece by writer Jan Brokken about Morandi. He also wrote about Ciurlionis. At first I didn’t realize that it was about that painter from Ghent, because Brokken wrote about the musician that Ciurlionis also was. He created beautiful compositions: cantatas, preludes, fugues, canons… Some are still performed. But at a certain point the penny dropped for me: Ciurlionis united several talents. Then the enthusiasm of the time took hold of me again and I decided to try to dedicate a large exhibition to him in Museum Belvédère.”

Emotional bonding

Museum Belvédère has traditionally been very interested in artists who, as autodidacts, not only follow their own artistic path but also feel a strong emotional bond with their environment. Just think of Jan Mankes, Sjoerd de Vries and Jan Snijder. Ciurlionis fits in very well with that.

“All the work we show by him shows his deep involvement with both the landscape and what you might call the Lithuanian cause. At the beginning of the last century, the country was struggling to escape oppression by the Russian Empire. A certain nationalism began to manifest itself and Ciurlionis felt strongly connected to that development. This is clearly evident from the work, for example The Knight’s Prelude .”

Back to earlier times

In the background of this painting you can recognize the majestic contours of a large city, probably the capital Vilnius. More to the foreground are impressive landscapes, with both angular rock formations and rolling hills with trees. At the very front is a city wall with a gate in the middle that provides access to the promising world beyond. Above all, a determined knight flies through the sky.

“That knight on horseback is part of the coat of arms of Lithuania,” says Steenbruggen. “It can be interpreted as a metaphor for the longing for the vast Lithuanian empire of centuries ago. The fact that he moves against the reading direction – just like the knight in the Lithuanian coat of arms, by the way – points back to that glorious past.”

“What is also striking is the backstage-like staging. Just like in opera, a world is evoked by placing sets one after the other. Here I see Ciurlionis’ musical background. He builds his paintings according to the rules of music, in successive parts. The contour of the skyline, for example, could therefore also be interpreted as a melody line. Finally, there is also the musical title Prelude : a prelude or prelude, in this case to a glorious future whose roots lie in the past.”

Unity of opposites

The painting is included in the invitation from Museum Belvédère – and on the cover of the catalogue The offer . A wonderful work with a religious undertone. There is one sacrifice that is accepted and another that is rejected. And then there is that angel in the center of the image.

“But there is more,” says Steenbruggen. “This work is about the unity of opposites, one not without the other: white and black, round and angular, stylized and rough, solid and liquid, large and small, earthly and heavenly, life and death. I can’t explain it completely. His work often refers to folk tales that have traditionally only been handed down in an oral tradition and have now been lost. Ciurlionis himself has said very little about his own work. That’s a shame, but it also has a big advantage. As a viewer you can create your own story.”

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Beyond Heaven and Earth

The exhibition can be seen until June 9 from Tuesday to Sunday in Museum Belvédère, Heerenveen