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.
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.
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, 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.
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.