Heaven, Earth, and Lithuania

There is something exciting about discovering, for the first time, a wonderful author, artist, or composer of whom you were previously unaware. To realize that this neglected novel or that underappreciated painting was out there all along, just waiting to be enjoyed by you, and now, suddenly, you have stumbled upon it, is like being the recipient of an unexpected gift. The thrill derives in part from becoming an insider, one of those select few who are (now) “in the know.” But there is nothing exclusive about the emotion, no wish to keep the discovery a secret for yourself. To the contrary, one feels immediately driven to share the news—to pass the book along to a family member, to send a friend a picture of the painting, to share the recording. We intuitively sense that a great work of art is a possession of all humanity, and the joy of encountering it is increased, not diminished, when it is shared with others.

I recently had an experience of this sort when I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG) in south London to see the exhibition “M.K. Čiurlionis: Between Worlds,” which is concluding this weekend. (If you happen to be in London, hop online and grab one of the last tickets before they’re gone.) The gallery is worth a visit in its own right. Originally designed in 1811 by Sir John Soane, one of England’s finest architects—whose own London home is now the delightfully eccentric Sir John Soane Museum—it was “the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery,” to quote its website. Soane’s innovative design incorporated natural light from above to help visitors view the collection, housed in five linked galleries, adjoined by a mausoleum that holds the graves of the DPG’s founders. Carefully rebuilt after extensive bombing damage in World War II, the gallery’s impressive holdings include works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Canaletto, Ruisdael, and others. Bartolomé Estéban Murillo’s Virgin of the Rosary is one of the loveliest Madonnas I know; Rubens’ equally eye-catching but much more worldly Venus, Mars, and Cupid shows the voluptuous, lightly garbed goddess playfully squirting a fountain of milk from her breast into the open mouth of young Cupid, while the god of war, wearing his armor, looks on admiringly.

I was there in late February to see none of these, however, but rather to learn about an artist I had never heard of in my life: the Lithuanian M. K. Čiurlionis, who lived from 1875 to 1911, dying of pneumonia at a tragically young age, with his creative powers in full bloom. Čiurlionis originally trained as a composer, with considerable success; some of his roughly 400 compositions, late Romantic in style, are available on YouTube for the curious listener. But in the early twentieth century, over the last seven years of his life, Čiurlionis turned his attention primarily to painting. In a remarkable burst of creative activity, he produced more than 300 works of art, of which just over 100 can be seen in the DPG exhibition.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that I was unfamiliar with Čiurlionis. According to the exhibition catalog, his work has rarely traveled outside his native Lithuania and has been shown at only a few exhibitions, in Paris, Milan, and near Tokyo. That is a shame, because I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw. The first thing that strikes the viewer upon entering is Čiurlionis’s use of color. Some of the first paintings, like the diptych Rex, a pair of sketches for stained glass, or the 13-painting sequence Creation of the World, jump out for their use of bold, eye-catching color. The palette changes as one proceeds through the exhibition, shifting toward more muted earth tones before becoming more colorful again in some of the final paintings.

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