Volume 49, No.2 - Summer 2003
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2003 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

The role of music in the paintings of M.K. Čiurlionis


University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne

Until recently,* the Lithuanian composer, M.K. Čiurlionis was almost unknown to the general public in Western Europe.1 With the exception of a few group exhibitions,2 only German venues have shown the painted works of Čiurlionis in monographic exhibitions.3 The series of events organized during the period 2000 to 2001 in France, Italy and Switzerland4 has filled the gap. In this sense, the retrospective which took place in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, is a milestone and bears witness, if this was still necessary, that Čiurlionis has become a subject of study all over Europe.

The Myth of Amphion

"There was a saying in antiquity that 'music is the language of the gods,' and people revered music, believing it to have magic powers. The city of Thebes is said to have been raised as music was played. When Amphion played, stones would lay themselves down or raise themselves up without any external help; poles, columns, towers and palaces simply grew up from the ground." The ancient myth, revisited by Čiurlionis in his first essay "On Music" personifies the search for harmony by the interplay of architecture and music. The Lithuanian artist imposes a variation. He operates a shift in the dichotomy, from music-architecture towards music-painting, more in conformity with his artistic concerns. This approach is not new. In 1740, the priest mathematician, Louis-Bertrand Castel published a treatise that attempted to establish the relationship between the two artistic expressions. Two projects, "musical tapestry" and "harpsichord for the eyes,"5 whose fame remains to be determined, give credit to his writings.

The postulate "music is the language of the gods" found its full expression with the triumph of Romanticism. Following a tradition which developed via Rousseau, music was considered as ranking highest in the classification of the arts. In the chapter "Imitation" in the Dictionnaire de la Musique the philosopher writes that music "paints everything even objects that are only visible: from an almost inconceivable prestige, it seems to put the eye in the ear." Then Goethe evokes the myth of Orpheus, who built a city from only the sound of his lyre and transformed chaos into harmony. From this perspective, music is the model to which the other arts must refer. Many painters and writers have wondered about the ways in which music and painting interact. Among these are Goethe and the painter Philippe Otto Runge, both of whom, at the same time, set forth a theory aiming to draw the concordance between sound and color.

Objectivization of Time

The first sign of music in the paintings of Čiurlionis is in their titles. In the corpus of his painted works, Sonata, Symphony, Fantasia, Prelude and Fugue are legion. The qualifiers applied to the sonatas are apocryphal. Except for The Sea and The Serpent, the artist only identified his other works by reference numbers. For the most part, they are composed, according to the classical tradition, of four paintings, each of which corresponds to a musical movement: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale. Very sensitive also to the transcription of the fugue and the prelude into painting, Čiurlionis conceived diptychs and triptychs articulated around Prelude-Fugue or Prelude-Fugue-Finale respectively. All came under the evocative title of Fantasies. The analogy goes further. Each painting within a cycle observes the tempo of the musical movement to which it refers: Allegro is characterized by its dynamic and impetuous character, Andante by its serenity and sweep; Scherzo is light, and Finale is solemn.

The notion of time, introduced by this musical wording, is developed through a process that Čiurlionis is particularly fond of, which consists of a succession of paintings grouped within a pictorial ensemble. This deployment in successive sequences contributes to shaping a "Visual Time," to quote Jörg Makarinus. The process is all the more efficient because the painting, which initiates a cycle, generally opens up to the right. This impulsion spurs the reader on and determines its direction. The illustration of an account, sometimes corroborates the direction in reading, such as the Sonata of the Serpent (1908) the theme of which seems to be drawn from the Fairy Tale of the Green Snake by Goethe, or the Funeral Symphony (1903), one of the artist's most Symbolist works. At other times, the narrative process is formed independently of an account, as is the case for the group of thirteen paintings forming the series the Creation of the World (1905-1906), or the description of the hours of the day in the Cycle of Twenty-Four Hours (1904—1905). But in other works, let us quote the Sonata of the Stars (1908) or the Sparks cycle (1906), Čiurlionis doesn't draw from any iconographical source—spatial continuity for him is most often the outcome of a search for objectivization of the temporal factor.


Painting and music meet beyond reciprocal imitations. As languages, they converge in what they have in common, the "scriptural." The setting down graphically of a piece on a score gives music its spatial and timeless dimension. The graphic representation of the sounds expresses the realm of signs. In the twentieth century, several painters—the first being Paul Klee—have used musical signs. Čiurlionis is one of them. A musician by training, his pictorial language has its foundation in the language of music. In many of his plastic compositions, the artist used the musical score. The Sonata of the Stars (1908) is one instance of this process. The Allegro and Andante of which it consists are linked by a starry line, whose function borders that of the basso continuo in music. Furthermore, the repeated motif of lines on whichspheres evolve refers respectively to staff and to notes. Čiurlionis makes use of motif-signs—spheres, lines, but also stylized figurative elements. These motif-signs act as tropes, which draw the spectator to a musical interpretation of the painting. The semantic relation is all the more admissible as nonobjec-tive representation is approached.

The Fugue from the diptych Prelude and Fugue (1907-1908) is edifying. The Grand Fugue op. 34, corresponds to this painting and bears witness to the mastery acquired by the musician in the domain of polyphony. Polyphony appears as one of the constant concerns of the Lithuanian artist, be it in painting or in music. In a letter to the artist's widow dated April 1930, Romain Rolland notes "I cannot say how much I am penetrated by this truly magical art which has enriched—not only painting, but also the human vision of polyphony, counterpoints and fugues, and of the musical rhythm."6 In Čiurlionis's painting, the art of the fugue and of polyphony are seized in a visual immediacy. Its upper area is crossed by a straight line that symbolizes the ostinato, a form of basso continuo established by Bach. On this line, stylized trees and anthropomorphic silhouettes evolve. These motif-signs are repeated in the lower register, where they expand in three planes superimposed according to the laws of counterpoint. The first melodic line defines the theme. The two other "voices" take it up successively and impose a variation.

Sound Vision

Although it was first appreciated by the Romantics, the idea of working at a correspondence between painting and music only became more widespread in Symbolist circles during the second half of the nineteenth century. Painters, writers, poets and musicians affiliated with the Symbolist movement distinguished themselves by the multiplicity of wide-ranging attempts at provoking interactions between the different registers of sentience. The phenomenon is expressed well in Baudelaire's poem Correspondences, where vertical and horizontal connections skirt each other. When the first draws the link between the material and spiritual worlds, the second, more justly called synaesthesias, make the senses communicate among each other. Arthur Rimbaud resorts to synaesthesias in his poem Voyelles as does Huysmans in A rébours, where Des Esseintes, model of the decadent hero, uses an "organ of liqueurs." Music is omnipresent in the work of many painters. Among them, are Fantin-Latour, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Gauguin, Max Klinger and especially Arnold Bocklin for whom "a picture must give the spectator as much food for thought as a poem and must make the same kind of impression as a piece of music...".7 Čiurlionis had the opportunity to admire works by these artists, in particular in 1906 on a trip to Prague, Dresden, Nuremberg, Vienna and Munich, where he attended the International Exhibition and the Exhibition of French Art.

"I have already painted one symbolic painting." With these words on the back of a card, dated 2 December 1903 and representing Böcklin's Prometheus, Čiurlionis informed his brother Povilas of his adherence to Symbolism. He shared with this group a common attraction to "correspondences." In her memoirs, Sofija Kymantaitė-Čiurlionienė states that "Čiurlionis had the habit of saying: there is no separation between the arts." In the Lithuanian artist's work, the design always took precedence over color. He did not play with synopsis, in the manner of Scriabin in his Prometheus, the "poem of fire" (1911) or as Kandinsky extols in the Spiritual in Art (1911). Rather, resorting to the sinuous line and its power as evocative of melodic movement, he created the correspondence of visual and auditory senses. The arabesque of the Scherzo of the Sonata of Spring (1907) plays this part. It evolves on fixed, horizontal or vertical elements, which are allusions to the score. A falling of white ovoid shapes and black stylized birds, figures of notes, enhances the effect of its ascending movement and introduces polyphony. Through his search for sensorial connections, but also through the dreamlike atmosphere permeating his paintings, the Lithuanian artist is related to Symbolism. His landscapes faithfully meet the aphorism of Bocklin quoted above. Čiurlionis tries to restitute them in their musical contents or to word it more clearly, in the sound vision he has of them. The result of the two painters common search is the fantastic atmosphere that fills their works. The Island of the Dead by Böcklin, one of the five versions of which Čiurlionis had the opportunity to see in the Leipzig Museum, has often been compared to the Stillness of which there are two pastels, dated 1904 and 1905, characterized by an anthropomorphization of the landscape.

Cosmic Vision

"Musical method was for our artist the Sesame which opened to him the unspoilt sanctuaries of universal mystery. He has seen the music of phenomena and has used it to raise the veil of Isis... his paintings are attempts at an explanation of the world".8 The Russian Symbolist writer, Viatcheslav Ivanov, notes that Čiurlionis's art participates even more in vertical connections, advocated by the illuminist current that was born in the eighteenth century and which counted among its members Balzac and Swedenborg. The Swedish philosopher offers a formulation of these connections in the Arcana Coelestia, published in 1749. The notes of study and correspondence of the painter rival each other with their evidence underlining his inclination for spirituality and theoso-phy. The cycle Creation of the World (1905) and the large oil on canvas Rex (1909) proceed from the ancient cosmogonical view of the universe enounced by Pythagoras in the Music of the Spheres. Here, the harmony which governs the cosmic laws is similar to that of sounds. While the first is listened to with the 'ear of the spirit,' the second is listened to with the 'ear of the senses.' The topography of the cosmogonic study Rex distinguishes the terrestrial sphere, "musica humana" from the celestial sphere, "musica mundana." On Earth, illuminated in its center by the flame of an altar, stands the hieratic doubled silhouette of Rex, cosmic king, sitting enthroned and reigning over the Four Elements. All around, celestial bodies fall into order. The terrestrial globe is surrounded by a multitude of spheres made dynamic by the stars' luminous trails. This dualistic understanding of the universe assumes the tension that is necessary for all opposites—movement and static state, black and white, etc.— in order to attain proportion and harmony. At the same time as this Pythagorean concept, Čiurlionis introduces an Oriental interpretation of the Music of the Spheres with static stars, held together thanks to a "Žvaigždukas," that is to say a "Guide to the Stars." The artist here becomes a visionary. He presents the mysteries of the world, which have been revealed to him, to be both seen and heard.

Attempts at an explanation of the world. This is very much the purpose of the cycle Creation of the World (1905), composed of thirteen distemper paintings. The first carries the inscription "Stan się!" ("Let it be!")—the word of the demiurge artist by which harmony extricates itself from chaos. A dark aquatic universe surges forth from the original Fiat Lux, raw material where floral germinations allow life to emerge. This idea is found again in the work of the Russian theosophist, Helena Blavatsky, for whom the flower, especially the lotus bud painter is a "mother race," a source of life. Čiurlionis, keen on theosophy, could, like the Czech Frantisek Kupka, draw from the texts of Blavatsky. Čiurlionis's representation of the universe in gestation allows us to draw parallels with the works of Kupka and Odilon Redon.9 In his collection, The Origins (1993), Redon wonders about the mysteries of life, for which he proposes an interpretation in the lithograph When life dawned at the bottom of dark matter. The Marsh Flower, a lithograph from the collection Homage to Goya (1885) offers an aquatic framework to the germination of a hybrid flower. Kupka proposes another aquatic genesis: The Beginning of Life or The Waterlilies (1900-1903), where a lotus flower gives birth to an astral fetus. Each of these propositions seems to illustrate the thesis developed by Edgar Allan Poe in Eureka, his cosmogonal narrative, according to which dreams and not science lead to the Truth about the creation of the World.

The Inner Eye

"I foundered in counterpoint. The entire world is presented to me as an immense symphony in which men are the notes".10 Reality, in Čiurlionis, always undergoes an alteration in order for painting and music to meet. On occasion through a stylization that often pushes the limits of the nonobjective, he turns worldly objects into musical signs. Sometimes he gives an anthropomorphic appearance to elements of the landscape: a rock becomes a head in Day, (from the Cycle of Twenty-Four Hours), wind, a hand motioning lyre playing with a tree trunk (Rustling of the Forest, 1903-1904). At times, he rejects all basis in the real world, projects his own visions and presents a world that is invisible to the eye—the fantastic herbarium of the Creation of the World. On other occasions, he takes elements from reality, throws them out of context and assembles them in an ill-sorted manner in his compositions: a skeleton with a deleterious smile, straddling a casket, joins the nocturnal procession of a funeral ceremony (the cycle, Funeral Symphony, 1903); cities, which never refer to a specific place, mix in an eclectic profusion, the architectural elements of great civilizations of all periods indiscriminately (Fantasy—The Demon and the Fortress Fairy Tale, 1909). In this sense, the dream-like world of Čiurlionis evokes that of Odilon Redon, who said of his own drawings that "they place us, as does music, in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate."

Musicality occurs in this interval between the real world and its restitution by the artist. A sort of individuation of music seems to operate, which acts on the perception of the exterior world. The altered vision of the artist often leads him to the edge of abstraction. The cycles of the seasons, true hymns to nature, remain a privileged example of this. Winter (1906-1907), originally composed of nine distemper paintings, of which eight have survived, is the one—from among the cycles of seasons—which goes farthest in stylization, dematerialization and geometrization of natural elements. As we have seen earlier, the process allows the elaboration of motif-signs: stylized trees, subjected to a formal variation, multiplied to the same number of signifiers that follow one another in a discursive juxtaposition and thus become "lines for reading." The advantage in this process is that it introduces the notion of temporal and spatial movement. However, it is necessary to contemplate the thesis of Gilles Deleuze for whom "it's no longer the sound which refers to a landscape, but the music develops a sonorous landscape which is inside it."11 In this case, Čiurlionis does not depict objective reality, but rather sonorous landscapes.

The Temptation of Gesamtkunstwerk

The formula belongs to Wagner. It was popular with the Symbolists at the end of the nineteenth century. And Čiurlionis, like many others, succumbed to temptation, according to the German composer, "The human artist cannot be entirely self-sufficient except through the union of all the types of art."12 This thought is more widely diffused in the Wagnerian Review in which the "priest," Teodor Wyzewa praises Wagner and the plasticians, for the most part Symbolists, whose sympathies adjoin those of the composer. The notion of Gesamtkunstwerk or the "Complete Work of Art" finds an even more favorable echo among the adversaries of positivism as it reflects the concept, formulated by Théophile Gautier, of "art for art's sake," which is so dear to them, as well as the nostalgia for a community of the arts, such as it was expressed in the Gothic period. Chateaubriand, John Ruskin, Huysmans, to mention only a few, pay homage to the cathedral and its builders. There are many examples of the growing number of artists, writers, musicians, sculptors and painters grouping in circles or associations. The phenomenon took shape in Russia with the creation of the colony of Abramtsevo and Talashkino. An extract from the article of the Second Exhibition of Lithuanian Art bears witness to a similar quest and nostalgia in Čiurlionis: "A countryman not only creates songs; he also takes up a knife and begins to ornament a stick. Why? Surely not to make it sturdier. Or he decorates a spoon with various ornaments. (...) Or again, a young girl weaves sashes and aprons adorned with all the colors of the rainbow and various ornaments—herring-bone, symbols, floral patterns." Čiurlionis as musician, writer and painter plays at provoking interactions between the different artistic expressions. Variations on the theme of the sea are a very good example of this.

At the beginning of 1903, Čiurlionis began his symphonic poem, The Sea op. 28, which is also known as Marios, the orchestration of which was finally completed in March 1907. Meanwhile, the artist turned to literature and painting. The prose poem, The Sea, has a pendant in the form of the Sonata of the Sea, which is made up of three paintings, Allegro, Andante and Finale, dated Summer 1908. Both draw from popular Lithuanian traditions. The painted Allegro becomes the theater of an engulfed town inspired by the Lithuanian model, "Vineta." The poem deifies the natural element. This reasoning recalls the art of the dainos. A favorite theme in painting, literature and music, the sea is also represented in printmaking on glass to which the artist devotes his work from 1903. This technique, which had appeared at the beginning of the century was quickly adopted by several Polish engravers. Čiurlionis gives us an engraved version of The Sea during the years 1905-1906.

In 1908, Čiurlionis directed his various artistic aptitudes toward one unique—and common—work, an opera. "Jūratė" is the heroine. From the nineteenth century, handbooks on Lithuanian mythology tell the tale of a fisherman named Kastytis, who was enamored with the goddess Jūratė, queen of the Baltic Sea: the anger it provoked in the god of thunder, Perkūnas; his revenge; and the torment of the discovered lovers. Čiurlionis benefited from collaboration with his wife, the writer Sofija Kymantaitė, who was given the task of writing the libretto. In a letter of November 19, 1908 to Sofija Kymantaitė, Čiurlionis wrote:

I find that I am fonder of Jūratė, and today I heard a little bit of music in it. Zose, Zose, I need your advice. Shall I avoid folk tunes in it? Do I have to take technical difficulties into account? When I think of our poor compatriots and their needs, I believe it would be most regrettable if this work, which both of us wish to contribute, were not provided to them. You must understand me, Zosele: I cannot betray myself, for my only desire is to have a heavier task to perform. I would be happy if the opera could be produced even in Warsaw and then, in due time, in Vilnius. But that is all a long way off. Can you imagine it all, my dearest, us in our own opera? What I need is just the time and peace for the work.13

This project, to the extent that it concerns at the same time the composer, the painter and the theater designer, wholeheartedly falls within the context of the "Complete Work of Art." However, the impact that Čiurlionis means to give to this lyrical drama goes beyond the artistic vocation alone. The choice of the theme is not a coincidence. This opera must above all participate in the cultural renaissance of Lithuania, to the "Great Work" to quote the words of the artist, and to arouse national awareness in his compatriots. During the following years, Čiurlionis returned to this project on sporadic occasions. With this intention, he composed a number of musical sketches and created outlines for the stage set. The projected opera remained unfinished.

Adapted from the French article: Nathalie Lorand, "M.K. Čiurlionis
 (1875-1911), Le monde comme symphonie", in: Cahiers Lituaniens, no. 3, Strasbourg, 2002, 7-14.
1 Andrea Botto has put forward the reasons for this lack of knowledge in his article "Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
— Lithuanian Composer and Painter," in: Lituanus, Vol. 36, no. 4, Spring 1990.
2 Les Artistes Russes: Decors de theatre et tableaux, Galerie Bernheim Jeune, Paris, 1910; Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition—British, French and Russian Artists, Grafton Galleries, London, 1912.
3 M.K Čiurlionis
, Orangerie Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, 1979; Čiurlionis
 und die litauische Malerei 1900-1940,
Museum der Stadt Wilhelm-Lehmbruck, Duisburg, 1989; Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
, 1975-1911: Die Welt als grosse Sinfonie
, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Koln, 1998.
4 Le Symbolisme Russe, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, 04/07-07/07 2000; Vision Machine, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, 05/13-09/18 2000; Cosmos. Da Goya a De Chirico, da Friedrich a Kiefer. L'arte alia scoperta dell'infinito, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia, 03/26-07/23 2000; Figurazioni Ideali, Villa dei Cedri, Bellino-zona, 04/27-06/24 2001... To mention only these exhibitions.
5 Castel, Louis-Bertrand, Esprit, saillies et singularités, Vincent, Paris, 1763, 278-347 and 369-370.
6  Letter from Romain Rolland to Sofia Čiurlionienė-Kymantaitė, dated 10 April 1930.
7 Quote from Robert L. Delevoy, Le Symbolisme, Skira, Geneve, 1982, 54.
8 Quote from Šalkauskis, Stasys, Sur les confins de deux mondes, Atar, Geneve, 1919, 262.
9 For more details, refer to the conference of Arnauld Pierre: "Maternités cosmiques—de Kupka à Kubrick," musée d'Orsay, Paris, 30 May 2002.
10 Quote from Vaitkunas, Gytis, "Mykolajus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
," Der Kunst, Dresden, 1975, 42.
11 Deleuze, Gilles, Conference Presentation on Musical Time, IRCAM, Paris, 1978.
12 Wagner, Richard, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1912, 216.
13 Quote from Landsbergis, Vytautas, M.K. Čiurlionis: Time and Content, Lituanus, Vilnius, 1992, 39.