The Shy Museumgoer

ART + HISTORY

Alexandra Exter: One night in Kyiv

At first 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. It takes a moment to figure out we’re looking at the headlights of cars speeding down a steep slope in Kyiv. As our eyes adjust, we can make out billboards and tall buildings densely packed into the background. We are looking at Kyiv from above, like a drone camera would.

Alexandra Exter, "City at Night" (1913)
Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1913)

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 growing ever more modern. Kyiv in the 1910s is basking in the glow of a new sports stadium, a new National Music Academy of Ukraine, a new national library, and a new zoo. It is becoming one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe.

Exter’s style of painting is called Cubo-Futurism — a fusion of Cubism and Futurism, with the emphasis on Cubism but without its muted color palette of browns and grays.

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 angular 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 dynamic geometric shapes imbued with machine symbolism. Their landscapes unfold like the flickering colors seen from the window of a speeding car.

Umberto Boccioni, "Dynamism of a Cyclist" (1913)
Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913)

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.

One year after painting City at Night (1913) Exter’s ambitions were cut short by World War I. During the turmoil, her home in Kyiv became a classroom for students and a hangout for members of the city’s creative elite. Polish choreographer Bronislawa Nijinskaja invited Exter to collaborate on a ballet she was developing.

Exter’s avant-garde style also caught the eye of Alexander Tairov, an experimental theater 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.

Alexandra Exter, costume designs for "Romeo and Juliet"
Two of Exter’s costume designs for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Alexander Tairov

In a theater setting, Exter found she could 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. In his book Notes of a Director, Alexander Tairov wrote:

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.

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 professor of art with help from French artist Fernand Léger.

Exter was nearly forgotten during the difficult post-war years . . .

….but she is enjoying a resurgence today. Prices for her work are increasing, although so are the number of forgeries entering the art market. Art historians will have to sort it all out, and it is well worth their time. Alexandra Exter was one of the stars of the Ukrainian avant-garde. It’s time to bring her in from the margins of art history, where so many women still languish.

9 responses to “Alexandra Exter: One night in Kyiv”

  1. So much to love about this article. Love that the artists of this era introduced each other to other talents. Love that she (love that she was a she!) was immensely creative in multiple arenas of artistic endeavors. Love that I am so drawn to the color and geometry and how such an eruption of buildings adds up to such an interesting picture. Love that I was also introduced to Delaunay, who I checked out further. Very happy to be introduced to Exter.

  2. I was thrilled to discover so much about Alexandra Exter. Research is complicated right now, because many Ukrainian websites are down.

    The National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv (www.namu.kiev.ua) is making the best of it by doing something bad@ss with their redirect page: When you click on the URL, within five seconds it redirects you to a site documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

    “Sláva Ukrayíni!”

  3. Enlightening…really drew me in to take a closer look. More fascinating than I would have originally thought at first glance. Love the backstories…

  4. I know what you mean about taking a closer look, Bill. Exter’s City at Night reminded me that parts of Kyiv are quite hilly, particularly the parks along the banks of the Dnieper (or Dnipro) River. Beautiful views! I had forgotten.

  5. Futurism, rayonism, cubism, action painting, abstract art, expressionism et cetera et cetera. There were so many vanguards of art in the early to mid XX C and they all came with a manifesto and many ended up in museums. But most, to me, were experiments that did not proceed further than the trial and error, search, investigative phase. The colours are nice, the shapes, the geometrical patterns, but they stay there without going any further.

    • It’s true there were more “isms” created during the 20th century than in all other centuries combined. In his book, author Robert Hughes describes the dynamic as “the shock of the new.” One new style after the other, and not always sequentially. Mondrian painted Broadway Boogie Woogie the same year (1943) that Gorky painted Garden of Sochi — and could they be more stylistically different? (The two artists lived within an hour’s drive of each other.)

      I don’t hear much about “isms” these days. Museums are starting to take electronic art more seriously. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Maybe “isms” have become “so 20th century.”

      • So true Diane. The main reason for all the search in those years was because of the advent of photography. Artists were trying to find a different and unique approach. These days it’s the NFTs that are aiming at being the vanguard of the XXI C. In reference to Piet Mondrian, I like his early work much more than the geometrical designs.

        • I, too, have mixed feelings about Mondrian’s designs. On the one hand, I think his feel for the visual weight of colors (black is visually heavier than white, red is heavier than blue, etc) is exquisite. The eye is drawn to the whole composition, not a part. On the other hand, if you’ve seen his geometric paintings up close (and it sounds like you may have), then you know many of them are not well-painted. The sloppy brushwork is distracting for me — it creates conflict — even though Mondrian said he wanted his work to be free of conflict.

          For me, the exception will always be Broadway Boogie Woogie. I love that painting. I love the way it reflects the rhythm of Manhattan’s pulsing street grid – the layout of the north/south avenues, the suggestion of yellow taxis everywhere, the little blue and red squares spaced like music notes.

          Mondrian died a year later. It’s a shame….I think he was on to something.

          • I agree Diane, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” does give me the same feel of New York and I too believe he might have taken those experiments with geometric designs a step further.

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