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Timken brings Russian Avant-Garde art to San Diego

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El Lissitzky's Futurist Portfolios at the Timken Museum of Art


The Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park is famous for having one of the most extensive and beautiful collections of medieval art from Russia in Southern California. It also provides a dazzling backdrop for this summer’s special exhibition of a completely different kind of art from Russia in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Innovative Russian artists of this period excelled at adapting trends in abstract art popularized in Paris, Berlin and other art centers and adding vibrant colors and three dimensional qualities that are often found in Russian art. Wassily Kandinsky became world famous for his interpretation of this style. Fellow Russian artist El Lissitzky also won international recognition for his innovations in abstract art and worldwide recognition as the designer of many of the official pavilions of the Soviet Union at World’s Fairs.

This special exhibition called “El Lissitzky's Futurist Portfolios” features two Art Deco era portfolios of limited edition graphics. The first is from the program of a Russian Opera, “Victory Over the Sun” by Mikhail Matyushin. It is both a vibrant example of the convergence of the performing arts and graphic art and design as well as a reminder of how event programs are often a launching pad for innovative design concepts. The portfolio consists of one image for each scene of the opera. This includes the signature work of the exhibition called “Globetrotter,” featured in this banner at the Timken Museum entrance. As “Globetrotter” shows, El Lissitzky combines his talent for compositions of geometric images with a form of hieroglyphics. Each geometric form and color contains a visual message and the composition as a whole also communicates thoughts similarly to a paragraph – or in this case, a scene or character from an opera.

There is no single interpretation for El Lissitzky images. That demonstrates the power of abstract art and these examples of Russian Constructivist style to inspire creative thought and thought provoking discussions between art admirers about their interpretation of the images. The display of the portfolio “Victory Over the Sun” provides an especially dynamic demonstration of this characteristic because there is a close match between the stories told by each of these images and the storyline of each of the scenes from the opera. The graphic called “Sportsmen” is an especially good introduction to this experience. It depicts three different athletes in different team uniforms with different physical characteristics that distinguish top athletes in particular sports. Viewers can interact with each other in discussions about what sport, what teams, and what strengths the athletes symbolize.

The El Lissitzky images also demonstrate the artist’s goal of democratization of art. His ideal was that everyone should be able to create art, not just graduates of fine art academies or those with a natural talent for drawing. Most people can put together a composition of precise geometric images that come together with a particular message. And everybody can become an art critic by discussion their interpretation of the compositions.

The second portfolio on display is called “Proun.” It is one of a series of exhibitions similar to the local exhibition called “Postcards from L.A.” and the UCLA Hammer Museum’s autumn 2012 show called “Graphic Design.” All of these exhbitions explore the convergence of graphic design and book publishing techniques. This subject will be the topic of an expert presentation on June 26 at 6 p.m. Nancy Perloff, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute, will discuss “Interactive Books: From the Russian Futurists to El Lissitzky.”

This special exhibition remains open daily until September 15. There is free admission to the entire Timken Museum including this special exhibition.