Alexandra Exter (1882—1949) – undoubtedly one of the most fascinating avant-garde artists of Ukraine and Russia in the early twentieth century. Exter was able to give a highly individualized interpretation to the basic problems of contemporary art. Like many of her Russian colleagues she started as an Impressionist artist but she soon went over to the Cubist trend. In the late 1900s she made her first trip to Paris where she could learn about the latest trends in French artistic life. Her contacts with Apollinaire, Braque, Picasso, Marinetti, Papini, Soffici and Léger could not but affect her own art to a substantial degree.
Exter’s unfading interest in colour made her Cubo-Futuristic (and, later, non-objective) works especially original. Her rhythmically active compositions stand out for structures in unrestrained colours which seem to be charged with kinetic energy. The contrasting relationships of pure colours are emphasized by the interaction of geometrized planes, the overall effect being that of dynamism and intricate interplay in space. Some art critics have attributed the colouristic and decorative richness of Exter’s works to Ukrainian folk art, which had always attracted her attention.
In 1916 Exter took up non-objective painting under the strong influence of Kazimir Malevich. In the 1920s she progressed towards Constructivism.
Today we can appreciate the full integrity of Exter’s art; but this integrity was combined with a most responsive attitude to the ideas and trends of her own time. Exter had a special capacity for reworking and implementing the principles of avant-garde art with extreme elegance and feminine grace.
Exter’s work for the stage has a special place in her heritage because it opened a new page in Russian and Soviet stage design. In 1916 Exter drew on her experiments with Cubist painting to design innovative three-dimensional stage sets that were based on simple geometric forms for Thamira Kythared (a play by Innokenty Annensky staged by Alexander Tairov). Her finest theatre projects — Wilde’s Salomé and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—were for Tairov productions at the Moscow Kamerny (Chamber) Theatre. Her sets provided an emotionally and plastically unique background for every play. Her spectacular, dynamic sets became an integral part of the performance because they brought out the stage director’s ideas and the performers’ acting style. Exter’s costume designs aptly conveyed the rhythmic and plastic image of every character; the colour schemes were unorthodox and expressive. Her costumes became an integral part of the characters created by the actors, and they were an important element of the overall composition. The artist’s innovative ideas strongly affected the development of Russian and Soviet theatre art.
In the 1920s Exter continued to work for the theatre. In 1922 she painted a sketch for a ballet set (the ballet was to be produced by Kasyan Goleizovsky to Scriabin’s music) in which she evolved the principles of Constructivist stage units practically at the same time as Lyubov Popova. In these years Exter paid tribute to Constructivism and was thus drawn into the sphere of design. She designed avant-garde clothes, provided the decor for public celebrations and exhibition pavilions, etc. As a designer she leaned on her experience in easel painting.
Exter’s teaching activities gave still another dimension to her artistic career. In 1918 she and the artist Isaak Rabinovich set up an art studio in Kiev which was attended by Pavel Chelishchev, Alexander Tyshler and Sergei Yutkevich. In 1921-22 she taught at the painting faculty of Vkhutemas (the Higher Art-Technical Studios).
Exter went to live in Paris in 1924. In 1925—30 she lectured on the theatre art and stage design at the Académie des Arts Modernes, founded by Léger.
In Paris she continued to work on maquettes for the stage, designed ballets choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska and Elsa Krüger, produced a set of fascinating marionettes for a film, and engaged in book illustration.
Among the first to study Exter’s work was Yakov Tugendkhold, the outstanding Russian and Soviet art critic. This is what he wrote about her: “The personality of this woman is a concentrated reflection of our culture—the critical culture that balances on the sharp divide of two epochs”.