‘Nationalism’ is a right can of worms, and the term ‘nationalist art’ should have all right-thinking people putting on their coats and hurrying to the bus stop. But to not appreciate the yearning for a country, language, people and culture to call your own is to miss a lot of the impact of this strange, intense and magical show.
Unless you’re Lithuanian (or Time Out’s UK editor Huw Oliver), you probably won’t have heard of MK Čiurlionis. This is partly because he was Lithuanian – and Lithuanian at a time when you weren’t allowed to be Lithuanian – and partly because he died in 1911 aged just 36, having produced almost all his work in the years 1902 to 1909. In his homeland, though, he is regarded as a genius, and this rare show of more than 100 of his works offers a chance to decide if that is true. Mikalojus Konstantinas won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you persevere, you might find yourself warming to this poor old Baltic depressive. In Čiurlionis’s heyday, his country was under Russian rule and its native language and customs were banned. Later it became Polish, which was a bit better, but not perfect. His work continually reflects this liminal identity, but in surprising ways.
It’s strange, intense and magical
If you have a problem with angels, demons, fantastical landscapes and lots and lots of small paintings in the same colour palette, you will decide that MK Čiurlionis is not a genius and that you should have stayed next door looking at a Rembrandt. His work suggests William Blake in its cryptic religious fervour, alongside a morbid, folksy symbolism. There are the aforementioned angels and demons, with wings outspread, brooding over darkling cities. Forests of Babel-like towers rear up, ships sail underwater above sunken towns and figures process across spindly bridges. There are pyramids and palm trees of questionable proportional accuracy, and a ‘Bake Off’-esque ziggurat belches smoke under the title ‘The Altar’. A lot of it should be ludicrous – and some of it definitely is – but you gradually get the feeling that for Čiurlionis the political and physical worlds are not enough to accommodate his turbulent idea of self. It needs to be couched in a more extraordinary register of sensitivity, a Lithuanian folk art supercharged with longing into borderline mania.
When he takes a break from all the nutjobness, Čiurlionis can paint very beautifully and economically. A triple-panel depiction of his beloved valley of Raigardas is almost Hockney-like in its direct simplicity and stylization. But that’s not really the point here. Čiurlionis started as a composer and his works have a lyrical and emotional grandeur sometimes at odds with their scale. They might be bonkers, but they’re intriguing, often quite beautiful, and you can’t ever doubt his commitment. No wonder his countrymen still love him.