From Russia with Art

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Somehow in the last several weeks, Russian avant-garde culture of the early 20th century has been presenting itself with surprising consistency, both here in LA and during my recent trip to Holland. In Amsterdam I saw excellent early paintings by Kandinsky, and on the last day there, I was invited to see The Four Temperaments by Balanchine performed by the Dutch National Ballet. The theater was packed, and the dancers were very good. All that made me think about the famous Ballets Russes and its impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who introduced the whole world to the genius of Igor Stravinsky’s music in his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

at090407a.jpg A couple of months ago, a very good friend gave me a beautifully illustrated new book about art, life, and culture in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the amazingly fertile first two decades of the 20th century. I happened to know the author, John Bowlt, the leading American specialist on Russian art and culture. Here in Los Angeles, he is well known as the director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture at USC. This Friday, April 10, the Russian Institute inaugurates its new headquarters at the Shrine Auditorium.

at090407b.jpg Last week, the Santa Monica Museum of Art had a capacity crowd at the lecture by LA Phil conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and theater director Peter Sellars, who shared insights on their collaboration on the upcoming production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Disney Hall. You may wonder why the lecture was held there; the reason is that Ethiopian artist Elias Sime is involved in the production, and his art right now is the subject of an exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum. During the lecture, someone mentioned that the next day one could hear a piano recital of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, and it was too tempting to pass up. During the recital, I thought how ironic it is that this great Russian composer spent more years living here in LA than in St. Petersburg, where he was born.

at090407e.jpg And speaking of interesting lectures, another one took place last week at the Getty Center, where the very successful American artist Kehinde Wiley talked about his highly theatrical portraits celebrating young black men wearing street clothes, but adopting dramatic poses borrowed from Old Master paintings. Add to that a background of saturated floral pattern that delivers an additional jolt of energy, and you will understand why Kehinde Wiley’s art is enjoying such critical and commercial success. You might want to check out his newest works at the exhibition that opened last weekend at Roberts & Tilton in Culver City, where the artist presents portraits inspired by his recent trip to Brazil.

at090407d.jpg And here is a heads-up on yet another lecture, this one by conceptual artist Peter Wegner, whose art right now is being shown at Griffin Contemporary in Santa Monica. Intrigued by the inexhaustible imagination of this artist, I’ve been following his career for a number of years. This time, he covers the huge expanse of one wall in this cavernous space with 2,000 circular works, each bearing a fragment of a map; he calls it Terra Firma Incognita, obviously referring to the fact that our knowledge of the world is illusory at best.

at090407c.jpg My last piece of wisdom for today is that life is full of treasures hidden in plain sight. A real treasure, comprised of several dozen exquisitely crafted silver objects produced by the Milan firm San Lorenzo, is currently on display at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood, tucked away within walking distance of the Hammer Museum. For those in the know, this institute is an invaluable source of information, feeding their love of all things Italian.

Peter Wegner, Terra Firma Incognita
On view at Griffin Contemporary through May 2

Kehinde Wiley, The World Stage: Brazil
On view at Roberts & Tilton through May 30

Silver Treasures of San Lorenzo Studio
On view at the Italian Cultural Institute through July 2, 2009

Banner image: (L-R) Director Peter Sellars, Igor Stravinsky, Esa-Pekka Salonen