Exter, Alexandra (1882–1949)

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Exter, Alexandra (1882–1949)

Russian abstract artist who was influential in bringing Western trends to her native country and went on to become a noted stage designer. Name variations: Ekster. Pronunciation: X-ter. Born Alexandra Alexandrovna Grigorovich on January 19, 1882, in the Russian town of Belostok, Grodno Province; died at Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, on March 17, 1949; daughter of Alexander Abramovich Grigorovich (a tax official); attended Kiev Girls' Gymnasium (secondary school), 1892–99; Kiev Art School, 1901–06; married Nikolai Evgenievich Exter, sometime around 1903 (died 1918;) married Georgi Georgievich (George) Nekrasov, on October 25, 1920 (died 1945); no children.

Moved with family to Kiev (1886); studied in Paris, had first meeting with Cubists, participated in "The Link" exhibition in Kiev (1908); began work as theater designer, returned to Russia from Paris (1914); worked under influence of Malevich and Tatlin (1915–16); set up teaching studio in Kiev (1918);began work as puppet designer (1918–19); joined Vkhutemas, participated in Constructivist 5x5=25 exhibit in Moscow (1921); worked as movie scene designer (1923–24); left Russia for Western Europe (1924); held one-woman exhibit in Berlin, settled in suburbs of Paris (1930); held one-woman exhibit in Prague (1937).


The Bridge (Sèvres), Museum of Ukrainian Visual Art, Kiev (1912); Grapes in a Vase, Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York (1913); Composition, Trekiakov Gallery, Moscow (1914); Firenze (Florence), Trekiakov Gallery, Moscow (1914–15). Designs: "Costume for the Protozanov film Aelita," Luis Mestre Fine Arts, New York (1924).

In the Russian art world of the early 20th century, the country's artists often experienced a rapid process of professional development. In many cases, the outstanding stimulus for their changing styles came from abroad. Russian artists went to the West, notably to Paris, to study and work, while such leading artists as Henri Matisse and Filippo Marinetti visited Russia. Extensive exhibitions of Western art became available in Russia's leading cities, while increasingly prominent Russian artists found it possible to show their work in such venues as Paris, Rome, and Budapest. The theoretical writing of Western artists was quickly translated into Russian; for example, Marinetti's article "Founding and Future Manifesto of Futurism" reached Russia and was made available to a Russian-language audience almost immediately after it was first published in Paris in 1909. Finally, Russian artists with extensive contact with the West presented formal lectures to audiences at art schools. A further notable feature of the Russian art world was the part that women played in the most important and novel developments. As John Bowlt has put it, "The brilliant constellation of Exter, [Natalia] Goncharova, [Olga] Rozanova, [Varvara] Stepanova and [Nadezhda] Udaltsova gave modern Russian art much of its creative power."

The young Alexandra Exter stands at the center of Russia's artistic evolution. In less than two decades, she moved from an early interest in the French impressionists to work in such diverse styles as Cubism, Futurism, Supremacism, and finally the politically charged style of Constructivism. Although a devotee of such distinguished mentors as Picasso, Exter at the peak of her career added a substantial element of originality to the models they set for her. Her work in Cubism and other styles, for example, was distinguished by a vivid sense of color that added a heightened emotional content to many of her paintings. She also did memorable work as a stage designer in the 1920s.

Exter, like all members of the Russian population, found herself living through a series of dramatic and disrupting changes as her country entered the 20th century. While she was in her early 20s, Russia went to war in the Far East against Japan. The conflict was a military catastrophe as both the Russian army and navy found themselves outfought by the forces of an island nation with only one-fourth of Russia's population. The strains of early industrialization and a rapidly rising rural population created deep discontents. Fused with the stress of the war and its resulting military calamities, popular unrest came to a head in the Revolution of 1905. Although the monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II was able to maintain its existence, Russia soon plunged into the even greater crisis of World War I. Once again, the country was rocked by a series of military humiliations, and once again they brought to a head the simmering resentment of both Russian factory workers and Russian peasants working the land. An initial, spontaneous revolution in March 1917 brought down the monarchy. A second, deliberately conducted revolution in November brought to power the radical Marxist faction known as the Bolsheviks with a determined leader in the person of V.I. Lenin as the revolution's guiding personality. Even someone like Exter, who had not been visibly political in the past, and many of her contemporaries in the world of the arts found the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 an attractive shift in their country's fortunes. She joined other artists such as Liubov Popova in devoting much of her work in the years following to an art that would be consistent with the ideals of the revolution.

Although she was a well-known member of Russia's artistic community, Exter left little information about her personal affairs. Students of her career are uncertain about the circumstances and even the date of her marriage to her cousin, Nikolai Exter. Similarly, the reason for her decision to leave Soviet Russia, along with her second husband George Nekrasov, remains uncertain. But Exter left a clear artistic legacy during the second and third decades of the century. Distinguished as a painter, she also, like her contemporaries Popova and Natalia Goncharova, developed a strong reputation as a set designer for the Russian stage in the 1920s. But, after settling in France in 1924, her most productive years were over. The final portion of her life saw

Exter working without distinction in the modes where she had already made her reputation.

Alexandra Exter was born in the Russian town of Belostok in Grodno province, a region which is now a part of Poland, on January 19, 1882. She was the daughter of a tax official, and she and the rest of her family followed him to his new assignment in Kiev in the mid-1880s. She received her basic education at the Kiev Girls' Gymnasium, an elite secondary school designed to prepare students for further schooling. She married her cousin, the attorney Nikolai Exter, sometime around 1903. Her art education she obtained between 1901 and 1906 at the Kiev Art School, but like many Russian and other European artists of the time, she made her way to Paris, the cultural capital, to further her training. During the years from 1908 to 1914, she divided her days between her Russian home and Paris. Meanwhile, she had her first exhibits in St. Petersburg and Kiev in 1908. The exhibition at Kiev, organized by David Burliuk, was a milestone in the development of modern Russian art. It showed the new trends, put forth a manifesto condemning a public of "complacent bourgeois," and shocked critics who still saw the standards of art defined by the academic realism of the 19th century. One stunned critic was appalled by the painting of an artist he mistakenly identified as "Mr. Exter."

Exter was a crucial figure in the dialogue between Russia and the West, both before and after the Revolution. She made bold contributions in every field of artistic practice.

—M.N. Yablonskaya

During the years from 1909 to the outbreak of World War I, Exter traveled widely and worked primarily in Western Europe. After setting up a studio in Paris in 1909, she became acquainted with proponents of the artistic currents that were dominating the scene in France and Italy. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, pioneers of Cubism, were two of the artists who influenced her; so too were the young Italians, Filippo Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, who were developing the dynamic artistic style known as Futurism. As M.N. Yablonskaya notes: "Exter was not an artist to be rigidly bound to a specific ideology or group." Thus, the prewar period saw her "associated with many different factions of the Russian avant-garde." Her close ties to the Western world of art made her a source of information on developments there for her more homebound Russian colleagues. Meanwhile, she added to her international reputation by exhibiting her work regularly in Paris, often side by side with the leading Cubists.

Exter did some of her most impressive work before World War I in the Cubist tradition. The Cubist approach to art involved showing reality through the use of geometric forms such as cones, and viewing an object from a number of different angles simultaneously. She departed from the work done by Picasso and Braque by her desire to experiment in adding bright colors to her paintings, and she sometimes found herself the object of their criticism for such a departure. Examples of Exter's achievements in this style were her Still Life of 1913 and her painting entitled Wine finished in 1914. As Bowlt wrote in 1974, "Exter's sensitivity to color" gave her painting "a synthetic, emotive quality lacking in the more cerebral, analytical work of Braque and Picasso." In the last months before Europe plunged into war, after a trip to Italy in April and May 1914, she incorporated Futurist influences into her painting. Futurist artists broke up reality in ways similar to the Cubists, but they sought as well to give the sensation of motion to the objects they painted; Futurists also incorporated such devices as placing written words in their paintings. Exter the Futurist can be seen most vividly in paintings like Florence and The Dynamic City, both finished in 1915.

Back in Russia, during the prewar years, she had exhibited in Riga, St. Petersburg, and Kiev. With the outbreak of World War I, travel to Western Europe became difficult, and Exter spent the period starting in 1914 in her homeland. Her painting now departed even more emphatically from direct representation as she came under the influence of Kasimir Malevich. Malevich influenced a number of young Russian artists during these years, his work stressing nonobjective painting that employed planes. This led Exter to produce such non-objective works as Venice in 1916, which some art historians see as a turning point in her work, and the subsequent Abstract Composition of 1917. Despite her willingness to accept Malevich's technique of constructing a painting around a number of planes, Exter continued to put her own stamp on what her mentors suggested, as she had done with the Cubists. Specifically, her sense of color drove her painting in a different direction from that of Malevich. The surface of her work, writes Yablonskaya, "moves and pulsates, evoking precise emotional equivalents such as disturbance, agitation, rebellion, and inspiration."

In 1914, Exter took up stage design while continuing to work as a painter. She became affiliated with the Moscow Chamber Theater of Alexandre Taitov, with whom she shared a devotion to a modernist and abstract style for theatrical productions. Here she expressed another facet of her artistic personality: her interest in ancient mythology. She designed the sets for Taitov's production of Famira Kifared, a play based upon ancient Greek mythology. Her set designs drew upon the dual traditions in ancient Greek art of the restraint of Apollonianism and the wild abandon of the Dionysian. Her costumes for the satyrs in the play, for example, showed the absence of restraint in the satyrs' personalities by decking them out with false breasts and wigs. Drawing upon the techniques of the ancient Greek vase painters, Exter used paint on the muscles of the actors' legs in order to emphasize their physical forms. This was a device the Futurists had used in order to shock bourgeois society, but Exter made it a part of her theatrical vocabulary. As always, her work in the theater showed her dramatic attraction to brilliant coloring. She followed up her debut as a stage designer in 1917 with an equally imaginative and successful set of designs for the play Sa-lome by English author Oscar Wilde. The work she did in Salome is attributed by some art historians to the continuing influence of Kasimir Malevich and his doctrine of Supremacism. Supremacism stressed the need for the artist to rely on pure geometric elements such as the square and triangle, and these Exter incorporated in daring fashion. The death of the title figure in the play, for example, was represented by the fall of five red triangles onto the stage.

The outbreak of revolution in 1917 found her at home. When the moderate revolutionaries of March 1917 were ousted by Lenin and his Bolsheviks, Exter participated in this radical turn in Russian life. Establishing her own studio in Kiev, she and her students worked to further the cause of revolution. In a direct political effort, she helped plan and decorate the propaganda trains that Lenin's Bolsheviks (now renamed the Communists) used in the civil war of 1918–21 in defeating the coalition of opponents called the Whites. The trains contained propaganda literature as well as movie projectors. But Exter the artist remained present along with Exter the devotee of Russia's new political direction. Thus, some of the trains she and her students painted were decorated with clear and striking propaganda pictures. Others carried the non-objective artistic tradition of Supremacism.

She participated in the new cultural academies called Vkhutemas, a cyrillic abbreviation of "Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops." These bodies were to train artists for the practical work of building a new socialist society, thus turning art usefully toward the goals of the revolution. In her studio at Kiev, she adopted a technique common to the Vkhutemas movement; this was to teach all the leading artistic trends from 19th-century Realism to the latest developments in Cubism and Futurism. Employing such a teaching style, which drew on her own eclectic interests, she asked her students to draw the same object using the style of the French Impressionists and the Cubists as well as imitating the work of Cezanne.

These same years of turmoil and civil war also saw her take up work as a puppet designer. In 1918 and 1919, she produced original marionettes for the puppeteer Nina Simonovich-Efimova . Meanwhile, she continued her work for the stage and her collaboration with Taitov. In 1920, she designed sets and costumes for both dramatic and ballet productions. The following year, she completed her work for the Chamber Theater with designs for the production of Romeo and Juliet. The abstract and modernist tendency of her work appealed to advanced artistic circles of Moscow but, as Donald Oenslager points out, not to "those who viewed it from the Kremlin."

Although Exter's continuing ties to modernist art remained evident, she compensated for them by her vehement support for the revolution and in following the politically acceptable art trend known as Constructivism, which was now firmly established in the Soviet Union. This called for the artist's talent to be put to practical uses. Exter turned her efforts to such fields as clothing design. In her theoretical writing, she noted how clothes designed for mass production should "be suitable for the workers and the kind of work which will be done in it." But, once again Exter's unwillingness or inability to be confined by an existing style became evident. Notes Christina Lodder : Exter "never adopted a rigorously Constructivist position in either theory or practice." Thus, even her designs for mass production included "considerations of elegance and beauty." She used many decorative devices in her popular clothing designs, which can be found in the costumes she put on display when she turned to the world of Soviet filmmaking. In 1923, she designed costumes, as well as scenery, for the film Aelita. Produced by Yakov Protazanov and based on the novel by Alexis Tolstoy, Aelita included scenes set on Mars, and Exter did some of her most exciting work designing the costumes and stage sets in this exotic locale.

In 1923, Exter again expressed her links to the new world of Soviet art by a collaboration with Soviet architects. In that year's All Union Agricultural Exhibition, Exter and other artists painted the decorations for the pavilion. Working in a number of styles, she produced one memorable work for this ephemeral project in the panel she painted, in a Realist style, for the Forestry Pavilion (the Exhibition was completely dismantled afterward). In 1924, Exter applied her daring modernism in stage design one last time in her native country. She designed the costumes and sets for the Moscow Art Theater's production of Calderon's La Dama duende.

In 1918, Exter's first husband died, and in 1920 she married an actor named George Nekrasov. According to a friend of the family, Nekrasov was so impressed with his wife's reputation that he introduced himself as "George Exter." In 1924 (some authorities say in late 1923), for reasons that remain uncertain, the two of them left their native country, settling in France. There she spent the remainder of her life and her artistic career. Like many Russian exiles, Exter and her new husband had to scramble to maintain even a modest standard of living. She became an instructor in stage design, decorated private homes, and, as she had before 1914, joined the lively artistic circles of the French capital. Sometime in 1929 or 1930, she and her husband moved permanently to the town of Fontenay-aux-Roses, outside Paris.

Exter continued to work designing marionettes. To this miniature form—the marionettes were only two feet high—she brought her range of experience in the Cubist, Supremacist, and Constructivist traditions. She also occupied herself doing the illustrations for original decorative books, produced in limited editions, in collaboration with friends who were calligraphers. But she no longer occupied a central and energetic role in the larger fields of easel painting and stage design. She produced no work of note after 1933.

The World War II years were especially difficult for Exter and her husband. She suffered increasingly from heart disease, and the two of them lived in harsh poverty. During the last years of her life, in the hungry circumstances of postwar France, she subsisted in part on CARE packages that arrived from the United States. In a final act of artistic will, she sculpted an angel to be placed above the joint grave she expected to occupy with George, her husband of three decades, who had died in 1945. Exter soon followed, passing away at Fontenay-aux-Roses on March 17, 1949.

Exter's reputation languished in obscurity for many years. As a self-exile from the Soviet Union, according to Andrei Nakov, "her name was deliberately forgotten during the years of triumphant socialist realism." But her reputation revived in her own country in the 1970s, and she received even more attention abroad. In 1974, for example, her theatrical designs were the subject of an exhibition at the Vincent Astor Gallery in New York City. Her works were also included in exhibitions of Russian avant-garde painting and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1978 and the Los Angeles County Museum in 1980. An exhibition devoted to Exter's marionettes and theater designs was held at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., in 1980.


Artist of the Theater: Alexandra Exter: Four Essays on Exhibit at Vincent Astor Gallery. Spring–Summer 1974. NY: New York Public Library, 1974.

Bowlt, John E. "Aleksandra Exter: A Veritable Amazon of the Avant-garde," in Art News. Vol. 73, April 1974.

Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

Parton, Anthony. Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Rudenstine, Angelica Zander. Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age. 1900–1935. Edited by Anthony Parton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

suggested reading:

Bowlt, John E., ed. and trans. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism. 1902–1924. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Compton, Susan P. "Alexandra Exter and the Dynamic Stage," in Art in America. September–October 1974.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California