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Alexandra Exter (Russian, 1882–1949)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter and designer of Polish birth. After graduating in 1906 from art school in Kiev, Exter married in 1908 and went to Paris, where she studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. The following year she rented a studio in Paris and became acquainted with Picasso, Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and with the Italian Futurists Filippo Marinetti, Giovanni Papini and Ardengo Soffici (with whom she shared a studio in 1914). In Paris she also attended the Vasil’yeva Free Russian Academy, where Fernand Léger gave two important lectures on modern art. In the years 1909–14 Exter travelled extensively between Paris, Moscow and Kiev, playing an important role in disseminating Cubist and Futurist ideas among the Russian avant-garde. She participated in many important avant-garde exhibitions in Russia and the Ukraine, including David Burlyuk’s Link (Kiev, 1908), the first and second Izdebsky Salons (Odessa, 1909–10; Kiev and St Petersburg, 1910–11), and the first and last shows of the Union of Youth in St Petersburg (1910 and 1913–14). She also exhibited in Paris at the Section d’Or (1912) and at the Salon des Indépendants (1912 and 1914), and in Rome at the International Futurist Exhibition (1914).

In Exter’s work the gradual assimilation of Cubist and Futurist ideas was never divorced from a decorative interest in colour and rhythm. This is clear in works such as Composition (Genoa) (1912–14; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), where the cityscape is fragmented into a system of small geometric planes, enlivened by variations of tone and colour. In Firenze (1914–15; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.) fragments of urban architecture are more boldly juxtaposed with passages of brightly coloured patterning to create a taut and dynamic composition analogous to the work of Exter’s friends Robert and Sonia Delaunay.

From the summer of 1914 Exter was based in Russia, exhibiting with the avant-garde at the exhibitions Tramway V: Pervaya futuristicheskaya vystavka kartin (‘Tramway V: The first Futurist exhibition of paintings’; Petrograd, March 1915) and Magazin (‘The store’; Moscow, 1916). Her paintings became totally abstract, exploring a personal interpretation of Malevich’s Suprematist style. In Colour Dynamism (1916–17; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig) the interpenetrating geometric elements seem to explode outwards from the core of the composition, while the sense of dynamic energy is reinforced by contrasts of black, white and strong colour, of curved against rectilinear shapes, and by the vibrant freedom of the brushwork.

In 1916 Exter began working for Aleksandr Tairov’s Kamerny Theatre in Moscow. Her experiments in theatrical design included treating the costumes almost as abstract sculptures, reducing the set to movable three-dimensional geometric forms and using mobile coloured lights to dramatize the effects (e.g. the set for Innokenty Annensky’s Thamira Khytharedes, 1916; some costume designs in Moskow, Bakhrushin Cent. Theat. Mus.). She introduced a more dynamic organization of the stage, using complex arrangements of brightly coloured curtains to intensify the action (e.g. the set for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 1917; costume and set designs in Moskow, Bakhrushin Cent. Theat. Mus.), and also used bridges to create different levels for the action (e.g. the set for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, 1920–21; set designs and some costume designs in Moskow, Bakhrushin Cent. Theat. Mus.; see 1986 exh. cat. for illustrations of Exter’s set and costume designs).

Exter’s pedagogical interests developed in Odessa, where from 1917 to 1918 she taught four- to eight-year-olds the abstract study of form and rhythm. She then taught in Kiev (1918–21), and among her students were Isaak Rabinovich (1894–1961) and Pavel Tchelitchew. Exter’s studio also produced decorations for the revolutionary festivals of May Day 1918 and the first anniversary of the October Revolution, and enormous abstract designs for agitprop ships travelling on the River Dnieper.

In 1921 Exter moved to Moscow and joined the staff of the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops (Rus. Vkhutemas), where she taught for a year. In 1921 she contributed to the important 5×5 = 25 exhibition, together with Aleksandr Vesnin, Lyubov’ Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Exter showed five paintings, each called Planar and Colour Structure, which she described in the catalogue as ‘colour constructions based on the laws of colour’. A characteristic work from this period is Construction (1922–3; New York, MOMA), which uses the flat application of black, white and primary colours and shows a great simplicity and purity in the arrangement of the geometrical elements. Formal contrasts combine with the diagonal composition to create an effect of dynamism and spatial ambiguity.

Exter was one of the most experimental women artists among the avant-garde of 1910–30, but she was not affiliated to any particular movement. She never shared the Russian Constructivists’ involvement with real materials, their disdain for easel painting or their ideological and utilitarian objectives. Yet she did accept the idea that art could contribute to everyday life, and in 1921 she began working in fashion design. She produced some very economical and austere prototypes for mass production, but in general her designs were decorative, individualistic and within the traditions of haute couture. In 1923 she was one of the artists responsible for the painted decorations on the pavilions at the All Russian Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. She designed and decorated the International Pavilion, and together with Vera Mukhina and Boris Gladkov produced a superstructure of brightly coloured skeletal arches and steps for the kiosk of the newspaper Izvestiya. That same year she began designing the sets and costumes for the Martian scenes in the film Aelita, based on the novel by Aleksey Tolstoy and produced by Yakov Protozanov. Her sets were spatially exciting, using multi-coloured structures (sometimes skeletal openwork constructions) and expressive mechanistic imagery. Her tubular costumes exploited the transparency and vibrancy of new materials such as celluloid (see Lodder, pls 5.7, 5.8 and 1972 exh. cat., pp. 27, 28, 31).

In 1924 Exter emigrated and settled in Paris, teaching with Fernand Léger and in her own studio. She returned to a figurative style of painting, producing still-lifes influenced by Purism. She worked extensively in the theatre and continued to experiment, beginning, at this time, to make inventive theatrical puppets. In 1929 she used tubes of light to create an elegant, almost dematerialized spatial setting for the ballet Don Juan (set design in Moskow, Bakhrushin Cent. Theat. Mus.) produced by Elsa Kruger in Cologne.

Christina Lodder
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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