Čiurlionis, esotericism and theosophy 1. Insights from an international conference

Was the great Lithuanian painter influenced by the ideas of the Theosophical Society? The jury is still out.

by Massimo Introvigné

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Čiurlionis, “Serpent Sonata: Andante” (1908). Credits.

A snake high in the sky, a bird flying closer to the ground and a man on the edge of an abyss he is called to cross. It is “Andante”, which is part of the “Serpent Sonata” cycle by the Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911). Although he died prematurely at the age of 36, Čiurlionis is recognized today as a key figure in European modernism, a decisive link between symbolism and abstract art.

“Sonata of the Serpent” was the focus of an international conference on Čiurlionis held July 1-2, 2022, in the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai, where his family moved when he was three and he spent his years as a than a child. The speakers discussed the different meanings of the “Sonata” and its connection to the art, music and biography of Čiurlionis.

Group photo of (most) speakers.
Group photo of (most) speakers.

Several articles mention the esoteric and theosophical connections of the “Sonata”, notably those of Nida Gadauskienė, Laura Varnauskaitė, Dalia Micevičiūtė, Julius Vaitkevičius and Vytautas Tumėnas. Antanas Andrijauskas and Daniele Buccio evoked parallel questions in relation to the musical references of the “Sonata”, and Žilvinas Svigaris its relations with Jungian archetypes. Apologies for not mentioning all the articles (I hope they will be published soon), although I should at least add that Chinese and Japanese scholars have offered (via Zoom) some interesting parallels with Chinese mythology of the snake and new perspectives on the much-debated question of the influence of Japanese art on Čiurlionis.

The conference program.
The conference program. Click to enlarge.

The connection between Čiurlionis and theosophy may be of particular interest to our readers, as it is part of a movement discussed in other articles by Bitter Winter with broad social and political implications. New religious and spiritual movements influenced modernist art, and in turn, discovering the depth of their influence on modern artists legitimized these often maligned and marginalized groups.

Rather than delve into the chronicle of the conference, I will summarize my own article here, which focused on the question of whether Theosophy in fact had a significant influence on Čiurlionis. The issue began to be hotly discussed by the scholarship on the Lithuanian painter immediately after his death.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis.  Credits.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis. Credits.

Boris Leman (1882–1945), Russian poet and anthroposophist, wrote the first book on Čiurlionis in 1912. He immediately notes the painter’s interest in occult and parapsychological ideas. These also surfaced in articles about Čiurlionis published in the Russian magazine “Apollo” in the years after his death. Yet the issue has always been controversial.

In 2019, the Greek scholar Spyros Petritakis noted that the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov (1886-1949), in his essay “Apollo”, part of a special issue on Čiurlionis (1914), “navigates through various currents in the culture of Western Europe, from Neoplatonism to medieval philosophy and from esotericism to the Orthodox Church, without referring directly to theosophy.Nevertheless, allusions to Ivanov’s preoccupation with theosophy are evident in the text.

After World War II, the debate over whether Čiurlionis produced modern abstract art before Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) – a claim originally put forward by the Estonian poet and art critic Aleksis Rannit (1914– 1985) and vehemently contested by Kandinsky’s widow Nina (1896–1980) – led to a commentary on theosophy. Nina wrote in her reply to Rannit that “in the paintings of Čiurlionis there is a certain connection with the painting of theosophists, but there is no affinity with the work of Kandinsky”. This was of course an odd claim, given the influence of Theosophy on Kandinsky himself, but it only became apparent decades later.

Čiurlionis’ widow, Sofija Kymantaitė-Čiurlionienė (1886–1958), strongly insisted that her husband was not a member of the Theosophical Society and did not promote Theosophical or other “modern religious” theories. Rannit reported that “Ms. Sofija Čiurlionis, the artist’s widow, told me in 1940 about the letter the artist had written in 1909 to the Theosophical Society of St. Petersburg, categorically rejecting any connection with the theories and modern religious or philosophical dogmas in his work. This is a letter, however, no one has ever seen. Rannit also replied to Nina Kandinsky that “Čiurlionis’ paintings do not share any resemblance or affinity with the Theosophists’ paintings”.

Čiurlionis and Sofija in 1908.
Čiurlionis and Sofija in 1908. Credits.

Rannit also cited Čiurlionis’ first scholar, Nikolai Vorobjov (1903–1954), in support of the idea that “any attempt to explain Čiurlionis’ work by means of occult and theosophical influences” was doomed to ‘failure. In 1967, Jonas Umbrasas (1925-1988), did enough homework to notice Čiurlionis’ interests in hypnosis, spiritualism, and ancient religions, but claimed that “his interest in the new ‘modern’ religion of the epoch, theosophy, […] seems to have been short-lived.

The question, as we will see in the next article in the series, was not purely artistic. It was also political.

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