Since its advent in the West in the early 20th century, various artists have been cited as the founder 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 Dulwich Picture Gallery. His work rarely leaves his homeland, and this is his first major exhibition ever in the UK.
Čiurlionis’s principal career was actually as a composer, and his musical pieces are still played with reasonable frequency around the world today. He only turned to art in the final eight or so years of his life (before his death in 1911 from pneumonia, aged 36).
On this show’s evidence, he certainly made those years count. The paired paintings, Daybreak I and Daybreak II, from 1906, are typical for the way Čiurlionis draws the viewer in with his rich mark-making, and only after extended engagement can some sort of figurative scene be discerned. In the case of both Daybreak I and Daybreak II, the scene is a long, empty, light-flooded avenue slicing through a forest.
In truth, abstraction in Western art emerged gradually over the course of many years rather than being the giant leap forward of one single painter. And, as the subtitle of this exhibition, Between Worlds, implies, Čiurlionis would be better classed as a Symbolist artist than an abstract one anyway. He shared the Symbolist fondness for escaping into dreamy otherworlds.
In Serenity (1904-05), a ghostly landmass has risen out of the still waters of a lake. Two small yellow circles within it add to the sense of mystery, like a pair of eyes gazing out at us.
Čiurlionis preferred to paint in tempera rather than oils, and the result is a thinness of colour that lends itself nicely to suggesting the otherworldly.
In his latter years, the artist’s pictures became more figurative, partly a product of his growing nationalism. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had offered a glimmer of hope for the many Lithuanians such as Čiurlionis who sought independence from the Russian Empire, and towards the end of his brief career, he commonly included motifs such as armed knights on horseback. These alluded to Lithuania’s struggle for freedom and invested his art with a political flavour that did it no favours.
Overall, though, this is a welcome outing for an artist, whose paintings, quite undeservedly, remain less known than his piano pieces.
M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from Weds to 12 Mar 2023; dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk 020 8693 5254