At first glance this painting looks incomprehensible. What are we staring at? Explosions? Complete chaos? Are buildings and bridges breaking away from their foundations?
Bright lights in the center of the painting temporarily blind us. They represent the headlights of cars speeding down a steep slope in Kyiv. As our eyes adjust, we can make out billboards and tall buildings packed into the background. We are looking at Kyiv from above, like a drone camera would.
Ukrainian artist Alexandra Exter painted this nightscape in 1913, in the attic studio of her home at 27 Funduklievskaya Street. Car headlights beam shimmering color onto a city becoming more and more modern. Kyiv in the 1910s is basking in the glow of a new sports stadium, a new National Music Academy, a new national library, and a new zoo. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
A few years earlier, the French poet Apollinaire took her to the Montmartre studio shared by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to see the radical approach they were developing, which one critic called “not so bad as it seems at first glance.” Exter liked what she saw, but couldn’t accept their indifference to color, because for Exter color was everything.
So she experimented, integrating Cubism’s simple geometric forms and multiple viewpoints with Futurism’s colorful celebration of modern urban life.
The Futurists believed technology would create a more equitable life for all people, regardless of class. In their paintings, objects morph into geometric shapes imbued with machine symbolism. Landscapes unfold like the flickering colors seen from the window of a speeding car.
Umberto Boccioni, the Italian artist who helped shape the aesthetic of Futurism, forged his pictures using the intensity of complementary colors placed side by side: red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange, chartreuse and magenta. The overall effect looks fresh and spontaneous.
His contemporary Robert Delaunay believed complimentary colors alone could create the illusion of depth and volume on a flat surface, without relying on linear perspective and chiaroscuro — techniques developed during the 15th century. He wrote frequently about color’s inner force:
I attach great importance to observing the movement of complementary colors. Simultaneous contrast is a honey of a technique. It creates visible depth without the old craft.
A world war curtails artistic ambitions
During World War I, Exter’s studio in Kyiv became a classroom for students and a hangout for the city’s creative elite. Choreographer Bronislawa Nijinskaja invited her to collaborate on a ballet she was developing.
Her avant-garde style also caught the eye of Alexander Tairov, a director determined to disrupt every aspect of theater production — acting, staging, costume design. The elements he found most challenging were visual, so he urged Exter to work with him.
In a theater setting, Exter could easily expand the limits of Cubist painting. She replaced flat trompe l’oeil sets with 3-D sets and colorful geometric planes that moved in sync with the drama. The baroque lines of her costume design gave the actors new ways to be expressive.
Alexandra Exter responded with exceptional sensitivity to the dynamic element of the theater. From the point of view of verisimilitude, her designs may seem stylized, but in fact they are truly real, from the point of view that theater is art.Alexander Tairov, Notes of a Director, 1921
In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles ended much of the violence and devastation of World War I. But before long Ukrainian lands east of the Polish border were annexed by the newly formed Soviet Union. This marked the end of a certain tolerance for radical artists in the region. Lenin and Stalin despised the avant-garde, whom they considered elitist agents of change. In 1924 Exter moved to Paris, where she became a college professor with help from French artist Fernand Léger.
Exter was nearly forgotten during the post-war years
But she is enjoying a resurgence today. Prices for her work are increasing, but so are the number of forgeries entering the art market. Art historians will have to sort it all out and it’s well worth their time. Alexandra Exter is one of the stars of Ukrainian modernism. It’s time to bring her in from the margins of art history, where too many women still languish.
Postscript . . .
Now through April 30th, see In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine (1900-1930) at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Moving many of these masterworks out of Ukraine wasn’t easy, with Russian missiles flying overhead. The exhibition helps safeguard the country’s artistic heritage.