Čiurlionis, magnetic Lithuanian great, over-researched but under-appreciated

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis

What is the objective importance of Čiurlionis to Lithuania?

Well, why don’t we start here from the way we understand Čiurlionis. I believe he has been characterized best by priest Stasys Yla in his book “M. K. Čiurlionis. Creator and man”.

Yla singled out two composites that never can be taken apart from each other when speaking about artists – the concrete personality living in the real world and, on the other side, the spiritual world of the personality, revealing itself with unseen horizons of thought and the divine ability to create freely. This is where pathos of all great creators, including Čiurlionis, rises from.

No wonder: it is hard for extraordinary talents to adjust to the society preoccupied with its earthly matters, if at all possible. The society knows very well what matters today most – business, career and all kinds of ratings.

Against such backdrop, every artist can look nuts – unable to take care of himself and his or her family. In a word, poor creatures, noughts.

Čiurlionis probably lived in quite similar surroundings and I reckon nothing has changed too much over the years when it comes to how we perceive artists.

In that context, his significance to Lithuania and its culture is hardly measurable and subject to evaluation. Tersely, no one comes even close to Čiurlionis.

Particularly because of his determination “to devote all his past and present artworks to Lithuania”, a state that at the moment of the pledge was not even on the world map.

I wonder whether the public, who still often cares about Soviet relics as cultural treasures, can comprehend how big it was.

There’s an opinion that Čiurlionis was not been properly appreciated during his lifetime. Do you share it?

He has not been properly appreciated either then, or now.

If we really deem him one of the biggest greats Lithuania has ever had, we ought to show him respect more often, not just on his anniversaries.

Has anyone seen a monument for him in Vilnius? Alas, there is only a headstone hidden in a yard, further from the street… We still can only dream of interdisciplinary studies of Čiurlionis’ heritage.

When it comes to paying proper tribute to this man, I really don’t know why we seem to be limiting it to giving his name to a museum in Kaunas? This is not enough.

While Valerija Čiurlionytė-Karužienė was still alive – and we ought to kiss her hands and feet for having the great artist in Lithuania, not somewhere in Russia or Germany – there were all kinds of Čiurlionis-related activities going on in the annex to the museum.

The activities had encompassed not only the conservation of his works and preparation of exhibitions, but also reconstruction of his artworks and publishing his creative heritage. Even some scientific scholarships were established to research his legacy.

Now, Čiurlionis Museum mostly serves as a storage. As such, the museum doesn’t have to employ music scholars, philologists, art critics or professional museum staff, of course. Watchmen do not need scientific degrees.

Regrettably, neither the museum management, nor the Culture Ministry have yet been up to the idea that a multifunctional scholarly institute, and not a museum, is needed for painstaking and methodological research of his genius and the vast heirloom. Well, let it be the way it is. But it’s a little frustrating, to put it mildly, that over the last 20 years, Čiurlionis’ letters, that are said to be still at the stage of preparation, haven’t been put out.

I assume the same mentality has kicked in here as in regards to his music works: well, they are protected, so don’t worry, they won’t disappear anywhere! If it weren’t for a private person, a big lover of Čiurlionis works, who has published Čiurlionis’ music with money from his own pocket, we still might not have heard of many of his musical pieces.

I do realize we haven’t done everything to immortalize Čiurlionis. In that sense, I care less about what his contemporaries didn’t do, but what we and our generation are not doing today.

Do foreigners appreciate our great?

You haven’t perhaps heard of the great composer Julián Carrillo or painter Xul Solar, both of whom in their homelands have large museums built for them and where their artwork exhibitions and concerts take place, have you? So in that sense, knowing or not knowing somebody is a very relative thing…

For me, it is important that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the whole world has opened up for us. And for the Westerners, a yet undiscovered part of Europe has opened up too.

Much as I sometimes feel that we ought to have done more for Čiurlionis, I have to admit that, with the lifting of the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain, his name has come back to the European and world arena over the last 20 years. This is a big achievement. It’s great to see Čiurlionis standing on par with Munch, Schonberg, Kandinski or Maler.

He has come back to the world as a painter, but I don’t doubt that soon he’ll be fully appreciated as a composer, too.

His belated international recognition has to be attributed not only to the political barriers. We have to admit we were often too sluggish, or maybe unwilling, ourselves to expedite his comeback. Look, we still haven’t prepared a complete catalogue of his paintings, a chaos reigns on the Web, as far as dissemination of information about him is concerned; some of his works have been put out for the first time only recently, in the 21st century, i.e. over 100 years after his death. So does it make sense to speak of popularizing Čiurlionis abroad, when we haven’t done it at home?

On the other hand, it would be unfair to insist that nothing has been done in handing down his legacy to the new generation, both in Lithuania and abroad.

Look, we have a number of scholarly studies on him, monographs published, there are international conferences organized as well as Čiurlionis music concerts.

Thanks to a private initiative, all his music has been recorded on CDs, and when it comes to international Čiurlionis exhibitions, his paintings have been put on display in the most reputable art galleries across Europe and the world, including Paris, Milan and Warsaw.

Composer Giedrius Kuprevičius staged a ballet, “Čiurlionis”, last year.

So things are not as bad, especially in the light that making Čiurlionis into an idol would have been extreme, too.

There’s an opinion we still do not know everything about his biography.

Indeed, we don’t have his biography hour-by-hour, but his life for the most part has been scrutinized and written about in detail.

For that we ought to thank professor Jadvyga Čiurlionytė and also professor Vytautas Landsbergis, who revealed, verified and supplemented many new and previously unknown details on his life. Landsbergis found out many peculiar details of the composer and his life during his trips to Saint Petersburg, Warsaw and Lodze. On one of the trips, Landsbergis even met people who happened to know Čiurlionis in person, like his first big love Marija Morawska-Maciejowska.

Today, finding something new to say about his life is pretty hard, as his contemporaries, who could chip in with new observations, are gone. The archive material that is available has been researched almost exhaustively. So from the standpoint of new evidence, only his diaries could perhaps still raise some eyebrows.

Nevertheless, there are still much speculation about the artist among contemporary researchers. There are still many “čiurlionists “ yearning to put an extra tinge to his character and life, but a substantial revelation, if anything of that kind can come along on the whole, remains yet to be seen.

But to answer your question, yes, a more detailed biography would be helpful. Particularly taking into account that the artist himself was an extremely meticulous and detail-oriented man. He would, for example, point out not only the year, the month and the day of when he completed a piece, but even an exact hour and minute.

There’s an abundance of what we can regard as quasi-scientific-as well as well-grounded research on Čiurlionis. How is it possible to sort out the wheat from the chaff?

This is so because a considerable part of the society still lives expecting to hear a “sensation” about him one day, something that most newspapers and online media outlets savour today.

No wonder we keep hearing some weird and preposterous theories, compromising what is known for certain about the artist.

For example, it is a known fact that Čiurlionis sympathized with his generation’s Social Democrats and even pondered joining the party. But when I see today people identifying him with a party that is in stark opposition to the Social Democrats of his day, I find it really strange. I hope that there will not be a reason to hamper his 140th anniversary celebrations next year.

But to tell the truth, another thing worries me more. As Čiurlionis’s name has been in the groove, there are many who want to cash in on it. Using the name, one can establish a fund, organize a festival, go on foreign tours and enjoy a lavish lifestyle. This is what really disturbs me, as the situation fools the public and unsuspecting supporters.

How did you get interested in Čiurlionis and his legacy?

I got interested in him on 22 September 1989. To be more precise, at 11.35 a.m. in Vilnius. I’m kidding. In 1989, I was doing my piano studies at the-then Lithuanian Conservatoire and was getting ready for a Čiurlionis competition. When looking through some of his works I had obtained from the library, I was stunned to see how different they were. That drove me to Kaunas to visit his museum and take a look with my own eyes at the original manuscripts. Having done it, I remained even more confounded. It turned out that Čiurlionis himself would often leave several versions of the same piece.

Then the museum needed a worker able to give a helping hand in taking care of Čiurlionis’ legacy, and I agreed. In the beginning, I’d come to the museum once a week. My job involved taking care of his musical manuscripts, compiling and providing their detailed description, cataloguing, etc.
I didn’t become a pianist, but that is how I got hooked on Čiurlionis.

The 25-year acquaintance with him has opened quite broad horizons for me in terms of professional career. I’ve written a thesis on Čiurlionis, and, without exaggerating, his personality and life has been the fulcrum of my life.

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