The Shy Museumgoer


Alexandra Exter: One night in Kyiv

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 light radiating from the center of the painting blinds us. It’s produced by the headlights of cars speeding down a steep slope in Kyiv. As our eyes adjust, we begin to make out billboards and tall buildings 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 cityscape in the attic studio of her home at 27 Funduklievskaya Street, where she could watch headlights illuminate a city becoming modern. Kyiv in the 1910s was basking in the glow of a new sports stadium, a new National Music Academy, a new national library, even a new zoo. It was one of the most beautiful cities in 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 brought her to the Paris 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 she couldn’t accept their indifference to color, because for Exter color was everything.

Alexandra Exter, Still Life (1913)

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. We would be served by machines and freed from the shackles of the past. In Futurist 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. His paintings look fresh and spontaneous.

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

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. Delaunay 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.

War curtails Exter’s artistic ambitions

When World War I broke out in 1914, Exter’s studio became a classroom for students and a hangout for Kyiv’s creative elite. Choreographer Bronislawa Nijinskaja invited the artist to collaborate on a ballet she was developing.

Exter’s 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 asked Exter for help.

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 scenery with three-dimensional sets and colorful geometric planes that moved in sync with the drama. Her baroque 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

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ended much of the violence and devastation of World War I. However, before long Ukrainian lands east of the Polish border were annexed by the newly formed Soviet Union, ending 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. The value of her work is 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 European 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, you can see In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine (1900-1930) at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Moving these masterworks out of Ukraine wasn’t easy, what with Russian missiles flying overhead. For the time being this exhibition helps safeguard the country’s artistic heritage.