Volume 32, No. 2 - Summer 1986
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1986 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The literature about the painter M.K.Čiurlionis frequently contains entries concerning his role in the founding of abstraction. There have been many statements about his influence, and even his primacy, in this movement, as well as equally opposing views. The purpose of this essay is to present and analyze the relevant material about this issue. The outcome will not surprise anyone familiar with the artistic currents in Europe and Russia at the turn of the century and with the works of Čiurlionis: he is by no means "the first abstract painter,"'1 and statements such as "it is Čiurlionis, not Kandinsky, who deserves the merit of having uncovered abstract art"2 are completely erroneous.

The issue of Čiurlionis' relation to abstract art dates as far back as 1916 in the writings of J. Tugendhold3 and 1919 in those of N. Punin.4 However, it was in the post World War II era that these notions were to get wide publicity by G. Anhekov and especially A. Rannit.5 The rise of abstract art was a complex process, an understanding of which necessitates a multifactorial analysis. It is only through such an analysis that perspective can be gained, and through that perspective, an understanding of possible contributions that an artist may have had on the appearance of abstraction.

Four particular areas of intellectual life profoundly influenced artists of this period: the relation of art to music, aspects of the scientific revolution, the advent of modern psychology, and the popularity of theosophy. Kandinsky, as well as other "mainstream" artists, were very much aware of, and were influenced by, developments in these areas. Čiurlionis, however, was not.

There was nothing particularly new about incorporating musical ideas into painting. Both Van Gogh and Gauguin had alluded to this,6 but in a much more fundamental way Baudelaire in his synesthesia of the senses had set the stage for this particular development.7 Very interestingly, both Kandinsky and Čiurlionis started their artistic careers in music — Kandinsky as an amateur pianist and cello player, and Čiurlionis as a pianist and then composer. But it was in the way each artist was individually affected by this current, as well as how he responded to it, that markedly differentiated Kandinsky from Čiurlionis. As early as 1904 Kandinsky was already incorporating aspects of contrapuntal musical composition in his drawings and paintings.8 With the appearance of true abstraction in his works, these compositional techniques were further elaborated, but never approached an actual synthesis of art and music. Kandinsky never claimed to have painted music — "He said that each art has its mode of expression proper unto itself."9 It is a little more difficult to evaluate Čiurlionis in this regard since he wrote very little about the relation of art to music. One quotation of Čiurlionis, however, does show his striving for synesthesia as regards his musical compositions: "I would like to create a symphony from the sound of waves, the mysterious language of a hundred-year-old forest, the twinkling of the stars, out of my songs and my bounding yearning."10 Almost certainly he was aware of the romantic Polish painters L. Wyczolkowski, Gustaw Gwoz-decki and Elie Nadelmann who already in the years 1902-4, immediately preceding Čiurlionis' art studies in Warsaw, had painted pictures about musical themes with musical titles.11 He was also probably familiar with the work of Whistler who in the 1860's and 70's had already used musical titles for his paintings. In this setting Čiurlionis' response was a romantic one, not a theoretical one as Kandinsky's was. Lyricism and melodic composition, as well as aspects of bitonal and atonal musical composition,12 are evident as in his work — all of which arose from an intuitive, not a rational, base.13 As reflected in the titles of his works, his aim was to produce pictorial symphonies, not a "pure art," one of Kandinsky's expressions.

In 1905 Einstein announced the theory of relativity — the theoretical implications of the divisibility of atoms, matter's equivalence to energy, and the concept of the space-time continuum, had widespread impact in the artistic community. Boccioni, Minkowsky, and Apollinaire all wrote of this revolution in thought.14 Kandinsky was particularly affected by this, and in 1913 wrote: "The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world. Suddenly the heaviest walls toppled. Everything became uncertain, tottering and weak. I would not have been surprised if a stone had dissolved in the air in front of me and became invisible. Science seemed to be destroyed . . ,"15 The implications of Einstein's theories can be readily observed in the evolution of Kandinsky's pictorial abstraction. Čiurlionis, on the other hand, judging from available information, was either not aware of these developments, or was simply not impressed by them. Čiurlionis was interested in astronomy and the concepts of the cosmos, concerns that are reflected in many of his paintings, but these interests arose from the astronomical and scientific popularizations of the writer K. Flammarijon whose work primarily delved into mystical contemplations about the universe.16 Thus Čiurlionis was apart from one of the major influences giving rise to abstraction, the influence of the revolution in scientific thought.

The writings of Freud also had their impact on artistic circles of that time. The ideas of the unconscious motivating factors appear in Kandinsky's writings. The oft quoted expression "inner necessity" is one such example as well as the more historically significant recount of the first painted abstract painting: "... the picture I have painted rather subconsciously in a state of strong inner tens/on."17 Again, there is no evidence that Čiurlionis was aware of, or was influenced by, the writings of Freud. 

In a much more substantive way, the advent of abstraction was heralded by the widespread popularity of theosophy. The writings of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner were particularly influential. Mondrian's artistry was steeped in theosophical theories,18 and Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art is essentially a theosophical tract. The influence of theosophy on Kandinsky's development has been thoroughly discussed.19 Čiurlionis undoubtedly was aware of theosophy, if not in Poland, then certainly in St. Petersburg where his intimate friends were quite knowledgeable about it. But here again Čiurlionis separated himself from this influence as evidenced in his flat rejection of any religious or theosophical influences upon his work.20

Thus, in four separate spheres of intellectual development that profoundly influenced the artistic community and which in a very direct sense provided the impetus for the development of abstraction, Čiurlionis was always outside of them. Besides being outside of the "mainstream" there are other more significant reasons why allegations of Čiurlionis' primacy in abstraction are erroneous. But first a short discussion of Kandinsky's knowledge of Čiurlionis is appropriate.

It is true that Kandinsky knew of Čiurlionis' work and that in 1910 invited him to participate in an exhibit in Munich.21 It is also quite true that Kandinsky may have seen reproductions of Čiurlionis' works in the magazine Apollon in the issues of 1910, 1911 and 1914. He was, after all, the Munich correspondent for Apollon in 1909 and 1910. However, he never saw any original works of Čiurlionis.22 From the fact that Kandinsky knew of Čiurlionis, to draw the conclusion that "... without Čiurlionis, pioneer of abstract art in the eyes of those who knew him, Kandinsky would not have been conceivable"23 is illogical. Being very much aware of the artistic world, Kandinsky knew of every major, and many minor, contemporary artists. To single one of them out as being crucial in Kandinsky's development, without supportive evidence, is a flight of fancy. As a contrary example, to maintain that without Claude Monet, Kandinsky would not have been conceivable, would have considerable factual support.

With Kandinsky's theoretical writings, abstraction very quickly became a dominant form of expression, which would eventually dominate the artistic world. The primacy of Kandinsky in this regard is easily seen: he was the first to present a well formulated, systematic, theoretical structure, which was widely distributed and had extensive impact. Čiurlionis, on the other hand, did not have a well formulated theoretical structure (in his available writings there is no evidence of any theories concerning art) which obviously could not have been widely disseminated. It was Kandinsky who spread the ideas of abstraction, and deserves primacy.

In terms of initiating a movement in art, it is not sufficient to have written a theoretical treatise; one must also be dedicated to it, and have one's work reflect those theoretical premises. In this regard Kandinsky was consistent with his theories — during his entire painting career, his works evolved along his own principles of abstraction. Čiurlionis did paint some abstract-appearing paintings (notably the "Winter Cycle") in 1906-7. His attempt at this area of plastic expression was relatively quickly abandoned, and he returned to naturalistic motifs. As a matter of fact, some of his most representational paintings, such as "Crosses of Žemaitija" and "Lithuanian Cemetery," were painted in his last year of painting, 1909. From a purely historical view, Čiurlionis stumbled onto the use of abstract, non-figurative elements, but quickly abandoned them. Kandinsky, however, was committed to his theoretical formulations.

In an even more substantive way Čiurlionis can hardly even be considered an abstractionist. In some of his drawings and graphics, abstract motifs have been alleged; however, in these examples the decorative and ornamental aspects are so overwhelming that any elements of abstraction are lost.24 In his most abstract paintings naturalistic motifs still predominate. The paintings of the "Winter Cycle" are not pure abstract compositions — trees, forests, snow are apparent. This is not to say that naturalistic motifs and abstract compositions are incompatible, but in a historical perspective the representational elements in Kandinsky's early abstractions eventually disappeared, thus giving credence to their original abstract values. This is in sharp contradistinction to Čiurlionis who never abandoned naturalistic motifs.

Chronological dating of events giving rise to abstraction also argues against Čiurlionis' primacy. It is true that contrapuntal musical compositional elements appear in Čiurlionis' mature works of 1906-9; however, already in 1904, before Čiurlionis even started painting, Kandinsky had incorporated contrapuntal elements in his works.24 Furthermore, singling out several paintings by Čiurlionis of 1906-7 as evidence of his primacy in abstraction is chronologically incorrect. If one were to accept this sort of reasoning, then primacy should be given not to Čiurlionis but to any one of these artists — Henri van de Velde, August Endell, Schmidt-Hals, Adolf Holzel, or August Macke — who had created abstract compositions in the years 1893,1896,1904,1906 and 1907 respectively.25 None of these artists, including Čiurlionis, were in any way central to the genesis of abstraction.

Thus all these different perspectives — aspects of influence (concerns of the synthesis of art with music, the scientific revolution, the advent of Freudian psychology, and theosophy), theoretical formulations, the exposition and dissemination of theoretical structure, consistence with that structure, the amount of abstraction in the paintings themselves, and even the dating of works — argue very substantially against any role that Čiurlionis may have had in the origins of abstraction. With all this evidence against these claims one wonders how they originated, what is the support in their behalf.

After a thorough review of the available material, particularly the articles of Rannit who has been the most active in promoting this thesis, the author was quite surprised: there is no evidence presented to substantiate these claims! In all cases cited allegations were made without any supporting evidence.

As far as the origin of these thoughts relating Čiurlionis to abstraction, note should be made of the following quotation of C. Belloli:

After World War II, in Paris and in Italy, the name of the Lithuanian painter was the source of much polemics and of heated debates. Čiurlionis was considered the pioneer of abstract art. This rather hurried delegation of Čiurlionis as the first abstract artist was announced in the articles of G. Anhekov, who allied himself with the assertions of Aleksis Rannit. However, neither one of them, in all their discussions about Čiurlionis, possibly even Anhekov himself, had had a chance to see the original works of art . . ."27

The wide dissemination of these speculations has had unfortunate consequences. By discussing Čiurlionis' works in just this one regard (i.e., abstraction) his entire artistic contribution, a contribution of significance in a number of different dimensions, has simply been dismissed. Two quotations from eminent art historians shall suffice. (The first is by Will Grohmann, the second by G. Hamilton.)

It is not a question of Kandinsky or Čiurlionis — there is no relation between the two ... It appears that after the description of Rannit, Čiurlionis was an intuitive man, but as a painter he was a dilettante ... by the fact that he did not proceed to the point where plastic art begins. The reproductions . . . rank Čiurlionis among the group of amateurs filled with imagination who, aspiring to the unattainable, remain in the decorative arts, theatre design, or in automatic drawing."28

Attempts have been made to establish Čiurlionis as the first abstract artist . . . The dates are not in doubt, but the degree of abstraction is... Čiurlionis' composition of 1906 is in one sense an abstract design, but in another it is an arrangement of sailing boats and architectural elements seen against the sun. The most abstract forms are irregularly disposed and intersecting bands one of which is compulsively filled with small circles which sometimes occur in the work of the mentally deranged (the artist did, indeed, die insane) but their meaning in relation to the landscape is formally unconvincing. Čiurlionis was self-taught, and his work was compromised by his inexperience as a draughtsman and painter."29

The worst outcome of all these speculative writings linking Čiurlionis to abstraction has been to preclude a rational appraisal of Čiurlionis' accomplishments. It is most disturbing to find in a recent publication:

"Čiurlionis started abstract art seven years before Kandinsky, was a metaphysician ten years before metaphysical art, and a surrealist twenty years before the surrealist manifesto."30 This author hopes that, with time, art historical and art critical scholarship will replace this type of fantasy.31

In conclusion, after an analysis of the influences on the development of abstract art, and how Kandinsky's and Čiurlionis' art compare in that context, it is quite evident that assertions such as Čiurlionis being "the first abstract painter" are totally spurious. All this controversy has done is diminish Čiurlionis' artistic accomplishments. His accomplishments were considerable — very succinctly, these were the incorporation of lyrical, musical motifs into painting, but more significantly, the merging of aspects of the romantic and symbolic traditions with the pantheistic, folk-legend tradition, producing an individualized art of truly mythic proportions. In clearing up some of the misconceptions surrounding the works of Čiurlionis, it is hoped that this essay will help set the stage, here in the western world, for scholarly investigations of the work of this most remarkable artist.


* Audrius Plioplys is a medical doctor as well as an artist. His constructions and drawings have been exhibited in U.S. and Canadian galleries. This article is the partial text of a lecture he gave in 1977 at the Washington Project for the Arts, located in Washington D.C. The talk was tape recorded and subsequently broadcast over Voice of America, and was mentioned in the Lithuanian press both in the U.S. and abroad.
1 Anhekov, G., "Les debuts de I'art abstrait en Russie" in Cimaise, Paris, December 1953, p. 17.
2 Rannit, A., M. K. ČIURLIONIS, Pionier de I'art abstrait, Paris, UNESCO, 1949.
3 Tugendhold, J., "Vystavka Churliinisa," in Russkie Vedomosti, Moscow, January 22,1916. Quoted in Etkindas, M., Pasaulis Kaip Didelė Simfonija, Vilnius, 1976, p. 165.
4 Punin, N., "O Knigakh," in Iskusstvo Kommuny, St. Petersburg, February 2, 1919. Quoted in Etkindas, M., op. cit.
5 Rannit, A., "M.K. Čiurlionis, the first abstract painter of modern times," in Lituanus, Chicago, Vol. 4, nr. 3, 1957, pp. 15-21.
6 Haftmann, W., Painting in the Twentieth Century, Praeger, New York, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 137.
7 Baudelaire, C, Selected Writings, Penguin Classics, 1972.
8 Mackie, A., "Kandinsky and Problems of Abstraction" in Artforum, November 1978, p. 59.
9 Kandinsky, N., "Una lettera di Nina Kandinsky" in La Biennale di Venezia, February 1953, p. 30.
10 Čiurlionis, M.K., Apie muziką ir dailę, Vilnius, 1960, p. 235.
11 Nasvytis, M., M.K. Čiurlionis in Relation to his Period, chapter 5, Ph. D. thesis, Case Western Reserve University, 1972.
12 An elegant discussion of the relationship of art to music in Čiurlionis' artistic development appears in Kato, l., "Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the Lithuanian composer and Painter, and the Correlation Between Pictorial and Musical Compositions," Journal of Baltic Studies, Brooklyn, N.Y., Vol. 7, nr. 1, 1976, pp. 40-44.
13 The following passage appearing in V. Ivanov's article "Čiurlionis — And the Problem of the Synthesis of the Arts," which appeared in 1914 in Appollon, supports the view that Čiurlionis' approach was an intuitive one: "Thus Čiurlionis' art in certain respects is an experimental synthesis of painting and music: an attempt, without doubt an unintentional and a naive one, but still conducted with this semiconscious regularity which is the always-present singularity of true talent. If this attempt would be a deliberate action prompted by theoretical search for novelty — it hardly would succeed."
14 Haftmann, W., op. cit., p. 138.
15 Kandinsky, W., Reminiscences, 1913, in Herbert, R., Modern Artists on Art, New York, 1964, p. 27.
16 Stoškus, K., "M.K. Čiurlionis ir filosofija," in Kultūros Barai, Vilnius, 1977, nr. 9, pp. 52-3.
17 Underlining by A.P. Quotation from Hamilton, G., Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, Pelikan, 1967, pp. 139-40. Of course, Freud's theories on the unconscious as well as on dreams were to take fruition in the subsequent development of surrealism.
18 Welsh, R., "Mondrian and Theosophy," in Kaplan, P.E., and Manso, S., Major European Art Movements 1900-1945, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1977.
19 In the article of Mackie, A., op. cit., in the references contained therein, as well as in Ringborn, S., The Sounding Cosmos — A study of the spiritualism of Kandinsky and the genesis of abstract painting, Acta Academiae Ahoensis, 1970, Turku, Ser. A., Vol. 38, nr. 2.
20 Rannit, A., "Čiurlionis Seen as Symbolist," Lituanus, Chicago, Vol. 7, nr. 2, 1961, footnote nr. 8: "Mrs. Sofija Čiurlionis, the widow of the artist, told me in 1940 about the letter the artist had written in 1909 to the Theosophical Society in St. Petersburg, rejecting categorically any relationship to any modern religious or philosophical theories and dogmas in his work."
21 Landsbergis, V., Laiškai Sofijai, Vilnius, 1973, p. 163. The invitation belatedly reached S. Čiurlionis, the artist's wife after the show had opened.
22 Kandinsky, N., op. cit.
23 Rannit, A., op. cit., ref. 2.
24 Hamilton, G., op. cit.
25 Mackie, A..op. cit.
26 Haftmann, W., op. cit., p. 135.
27 Belloli, C., // Contribute Russo Alle Avanguardie Plastiche, Milano-Roma, 1964, quoted in Etkindas, M., op. cit., p. 166.
28 Crohmann, W., "Interviene Will Grohmann," La Biennale di Venez/a, February 1953, p. 30.
29 Hamilton, G., op. cit.
30 This quotation of Rannit, A., appeared in Cavalli, F., and Barracco, H.B., Čiurlionis "O Grande Desconhecido," Ebraesp Editorial Ltda., Sao Paulo, 1975, pp. 28-9.
31 Rannit has made many similarly unsubstantiated claims concerning Čiurlionis. It is of value to at least briefly discuss several of them. In "Čiurlionis Seen as Symbolist" (ref. 20) Rannit presents a detailed analysis of the symbolic sjgnificance of geometric forms in Čiurlionis' paintings, without any supportive evidence. It should be noted that in Čiurlionis' own writings, and in the commentaries of persons who knew him, there is no mention of these sorts of concerns. Furthermore, Čiurlionis himself flatly rejected all theosophical influences in his work. In "Laikas Čiurlionio Tapyboje" (Aidai, Chicago, 1975, nr. 8, pp. 343-349) Rannit presents a yearly time table listing some of the world-wide artistic events that had taken place. The form of the presentation is not in question, but rather the selection of the entries is. As one example, under the year 1875 the following items appear: (1) Čiurlionis is born, (2) an exhibit of paintings by Albert Pinkam Ryder takes place in New York, (3) Gauguin meets Pisarro. To juxtapose these geographically unrelated events is misleading at best. Further, in "In Search of a Philosophical Background of M.K. Čiurlionis" (Lituanus, Chicago, 1975, Vol. 21, nr. 2, pp. 5-13) Rannit draws totally unsubstantiated links between Čiurlionis and Descartes, Plotinus, the Neo-Platonists, among others.