LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 49, No.4 - Winter 2003
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas
Copyright © 2003 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
From a monograph on Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis being prepared for publication.
Spiritual life, the true subject matter of art, is especially evident in the paintings of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. In his work also lies the key to understanding this great Lithuanian artist's ideology, his world view.
Among Čiurlionis's early conceptual paintings, Mintis (The Thought, 1904/1905) stands out. Along with its total pastel monochromatism, it is distinguished by a simplified, nearly geometric composition of a monumental nature. This painting also contains very generalized symbolism: light and dark (or shadow); perfect forma circle and a single undulating line; and a laconically depicted interaction between object and subject.
The process expressed in The Thought is One, spiritual, and therefore infinite: contemplation or thought as discovery and creation. A giant figure hunched over, a silhouette of its "shoulders" and "head," rays of light streaming down from beneath the suggested line of the "eyebrows." The figure is observing, perceiving, and in this way creating a dark ball, which extends beyond the boundaries of the painting and is a planet or perhaps the Universe. The figure creates and delineates with lightspirit. The cosmic "observer" is also outlined in light, as is the observed object, which is necessary for the cognitive spirit to become, actualize, and know itself. Ultimately, the work presents "ergo sum" as the principle of God the Creator.
Existence is just such a reciprocal process. And yet "Someone" is above and
supreme; Earth (or the Universe) is His thought. This primordial yet most modern
theism is proclaimed by Čiurlionis in a small painting of gigantic content. The
years pass/ the pastel flakes off, the color fades, but the idea remains.
Evidently, the concept is a true one, expressed more directly than can be said
in words and presented persuasively. From it can be traced all of Čiurlionis's
so-called animisms, pantheisms, spiritualismsthe Spirit's presence in his
landscapes. And everything said here about The Thought applies to the spiritual
life of an individual, and to mankind, and to the Deity. Moreover, thought as
light dispersing darkness is also evident in one of Čiurlionis's earliest
applied art projectsthe cover for the book Mintis (The Thought).
Soon thereafter, the apparently simple metaphor appeared as a colored plastic
concept in his cycle Pasaulio sutvėrimas (Creation of the World,
In a later period Čiurlionis's fairy tale Karaliai (The Monarchs, usually called Fairy Tale of the Kings, 1908/1909) again depicts light as an outburst of spiritual energy, except in a direction opposite to that in The Thought. In The Monarchs a bright half-globe at the bottom of the painting sends rays of light upward like a cosmic "local" nova and illuminates the faces of the royal couple observing it in the mysterious forest of a Universe filled with diverse life. This time, the small glowing object is concrete: a small rural homestead in Lithuania.
Here, Čiurlionis has expressed the idea of Lithuania's rebirth and his belief that his homeland's regeneration would come from its unique national culture preserved specifically by rural people. But the royal crowns speak directly about authority and guardianship, a higher power not merely observing and recognizing the "newborn" held in the queen's handsan infant marked by light energy and a radiant aura. The concept of the Sacred Family is present in this painting. The infant brings his identity like Good News, a message, a faith; it is the life of the spirit, which recognizes and knows truth.
"Let the little ones come" is also said in the Gospel.
A ball of light illuminating the face, warming and lifting it from darkness, is
a spiritual symbol in the painting Bičiulystė (Friendship,
1906/1907). "What would I be if I didn't have love?" is in this work like a
paraphrase of eternal truths. And Amžinybė (Eternity, 1906) is
lionis's attempt to glance at the pallid, indeterminate face of the Universe, from whose eyes eternal time flows like a river; only a crown of stars bestows the signs of royal power on the personified figure. "The Cosmosomnipotent power" the artist said about another of his works.
Čiurlionis painted yet another symbolic work titled Mintys (Thoughts, 1907). (Other names used for this painting are Laivai [Boats] and Laivas [The Boat].) Depicted here are an endless sea and sky colored in sunset hues. On the sea is a single, small, dark boat; in it sits the silhouetted hunched figure of a lonely traveler through existence. This could appear to be an absolute, even an existential symbol of man's aloneness if not for the significance of the painting's sky. Clouds of bright boats float high in the heavens in the same direction as the small boat. Like an imitation, an augmentation, of a musical motif, this is a mutely eloquent polyphony expressed in painting.
So-called "pessimism" turns here into a fascination with a majestic and beautiful world, turns into "optimism," indeed into a heightened awareness of life in which both of these limited assessments dissolve. Here words in Čiurlionis's letters come to mind, signifying more than just a metaphor: "have a bright thought"; "you're such a bright person, nothing bright awaits me"; "it's incredibly bright in my heart"; "it's so dark that it hurts me"; "a great bright happiness"; "if only I felt brighter"; "I'm not afraid of anything nowthe bird of darkness has flown away"; "it's bright again, I'm a human being again..." One of Čiurlionis's literary fragments describes his vocation as a mission: "to give light to those standing along the road."
In another fragmentperhaps from the lost diarythe artist tried to express the universal spirituality he felt, the God-given spiritual bond among mankind, nature, and the Universe. Čiurlionis affirms this tie to the Omnipresent One in truly unusual terms:
A person has his spirit and loves it; a person's spirit is his God, a person's spirit is the ruler of the world; a person's spirit is the beauty of the world; a person's spirit is the spirit of the world; a person's spirit is part of the earth'shis body's guardian; a person's spirit is part of his God; all people's spirits are one God, and God is spirit. God created the world, the earth, the sky, the stars, and the spring within the earth. Water flows everywhere from that spring: through rocks, through sands, through a cliff, it visits the entire earth from a single-source spring.
A good springgood water; I will fly to where all [everything] awaits dressed in new clothes, while here above the church, above the houses, a large bird flies, dissecting clouds with one wing, and the sun rises and it is the first day of Easter.
People remember the source from which they came and say: Let us return to our single spring.
M.K. Čiurlionis, Žodžio kūryba, ed. V. Landsbergis, Vilnius, Lietuvių Rašytojų Sąjungos Leidykla, 1997, p. 38.
In his "musical" paintings, that is, in those which Čiurlionis used analogies to musical structures and developments, everything is idea, the evolution of thought (in his chosen cosmic conception) and spirit, whose dualistic nature is often made more distinct by the archetypal symbolism of light-shadow, light-dark. In Saulės sonata (Sonata of the Sun, 1907) the symbolism corresponds to a direct meditation on the cosmogonic drama; while in Žalčio sonata (Sonata of the Serpent, 1908) it is the evolution of the basic symbol of life and wisdom into a disembodied, astral epiphany.
In Žvaigdžių sonata (Sonata of the Stars, 1908) part of a dark ballidentical to the one in the previously discussed painting The Thoughtlooms in the lower part of Allegro. But here there is no observer, or he is very high up. The entire surface of the painting is filled with a strong dynamic of lines, translucent spaces, and small accents competing, evolving, thrusting upward. Only in the topmost part of the painting is there a peaceful reprise, with two recurring symmetrical balls of light and a Bird of Light calmly gazing at all from on high.
The Universal Spirit of being, ruling by its very existence, is the sensed Unperceivable One whom Čiurlionis dared to depict seated on the throne of the Universe in the painting titled Rex (1904/1905). Both the throne and the crownattributes of rulersare present in more than one of Čiurlionis's symbolic paintings as well as in his sonata works. A contemporary of Čiurlionis conjectured that perhaps this large canvas would have been the allegro in yet one more cycle of sonata paintings. Actually, everything fits into this workfrom the allegro to the finale. Rex tremendae maiestatis, again high above the dark half-globe of a primordial planet, unites many polyphonic spheres with his throne's vertical lines. There are the earth's fields with rivers and rising suns; skies filled with clouds, planets, stars, comets; and choirs of white cherubim reminding us that everything is but a hymn, all is Spirit and its music.
An artist is only one of the instruments.
"You carry this willow reed-pipe in your hand, and on it you always play new melodies" (Rabindranath Tagore).
Translated by Aušra Kubilius
Southern New Hampshire University