Trivia question: name a famous Lithuanian. Google came up with four I’d never heard of and one I had: Hannibal Lecter. It seems that Lithuanians are famous only in Lithuania unless they’re the monstrous inventions of non-Lithuanians – an injustice Dulwich Picture Gallery is helping to correct with its M.K. Ciurlionis exhibition.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis is not just Lithuania’s most famous artist; he is also the country’s most famous composer. On his death in 1911 he left more than 400 musical compositions and more than 300 artistic ones, the latter squeezed into six short years before pneumonia carried him off aged 35. The son of a church organist, he was a musical prodigy, mastering the piano aged five and the organ aged six. But in 1902, after completing his musical studies in Warsaw and Leipzig, he decided to become an artist.
As a music student he had pursued interests in the natural sciences, astronomy, geology, philosophy and psychology, and his teacher at Warsaw’s School of Fine Arts, the Polish painter Kazimierz Stabrowski, was an adherent of the theosophical movement founded by the Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky. He became obsessed with the puzzle of man’s place in the cosmos and found painting better suited than music to exploring his ideas on the subject. Apart from the large canvas ‘Rex’ (1909) – a national icon – he worked in tempera on paper or cardboard. The materials were cheap – he made no money from his art – and the modest scale was suited to compositions that are less like paintings than illustrations of a fantasy world of his own invention: a mystical fairy tale of a free Lithuania, then in the grip of a national struggle for political and cultural independence.