One of the most experimental women of the avant-garde

Prof. Francesco Carelli, University of Milan




Photo: oil painting on canvas 

Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster ( 18 January 1882 – 17 March 1949 ), was also known as Alexandra Exter.  As a young woman, her studio in Kiev attracted all the city’s creative luminaries, and she became a figure of the Paris salons, mixing with Picasso,  Braque and others. She is identified with the Russian/Ukrainian avant-garde, as a Cubo-futurist,  Constructivist and influencer of the Art Deco movement.

In 1908, Aleksandra Grigorovich married a successful Kiev lawyer, Nikolai Evgenyevich Ekster.  The Eksters belonged to cultural and intellectual elite of Kiev. She spent several months  with her husband in Paris, and there she attended Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse. From 1908 to 1924, she intermittently lived in Kiev, St. Petersburg, Odessa, Paris, Rome and Moscow.

Her painting studio in the attic at 27 Funduklievskaya Street, now Khmelnytsky Street, was a  rallying  stage for Kiev’s  intellectual elite.  In the attic in her studio there worked future luminaries of world decorative art Vadim Meller, Anatole Petrytsky and  P. Tchelitchew .  There she  was visited by poets and writers, such as Anna Akhmatova, Ilia Ehrenburg, and Osip Mandelstam, dancers Bronislava Nijinska and Elsa Kruger, as well as many artists Alexander Bogomazov, Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine, and students, such as Grigori Kozintsev, Sergei Yutkevich, and Aleksei Kapler among many others. In 1908, she participated in an exhibition together with members of the group Zveno (Link) organized by David Burliuk, Wladimir Burliuk and others in Kiev.

In Paris, Aleksandra Ekster became personally acquainted with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who introduced her to Gertrude Stein.

Under the name Alexandra d’Exter she exhibited  six works at the Salon de la Section d’Or, Galerie La Boétie, Paris, October 1912, with Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp and others.

In 1914, Exter participated in the Salon des Indépendants exhibitions in Paris, together with Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Archipenko, Vadym Meller, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and other French and Russian artists. In that same year, she participated with the “Russians” Archipenko, Koulbine and Rozanova in the International Futurist Exhibition in Rome. In 1915, she joined the group of avant-garde artists Supremus. Her friends  introduced  her to the poet Apollinaire, who took her to Picasso’s  workshop. According to Moscow Chamber Theatre actress Alice Coonen, “In [Ekster’s] Parisian household there was a conspicuous peculiar combination of  European  culture with Ukrainian life. On the walls between Picasso and Braque  paintings,  there was Ukrainian embroidery; on the floor was an Ukrainian carpet, at the table they served clay pots, colorful majolica plates of dumplings.”

Under the avant-garde umbrella, Ekster has been noted to be a suprematist and constructivist painter as well as a major influencer of the Art Deco movement.    While not confined within a particular movement, Ekster was one of the most experimental  women of the avant-garde Ekster absorbed  from  many sources and cultures in order  to develop her own original style.   In 1915–1916, she worked in the peasant craft cooperatives in the villages Skoptsi and Verbovka along with Kazimir Malevich, Yevgenia Pribylskaya, Liubov Popova, Ivan Puni, Olga Rozanova,   Nadezhda Udaltsova and others.        Ekster  later founded  a teaching and production workshop (MDI) in Kiev (1918–1920). V adym Meller, Anatol Petrytsky,  Kliment Red’ko,  Tchelitchew,  Shifrin, Nikritin worked there. Also during this period  she was one of the leading stage designers of Alexander Tairov‘s Chamber Theatre.

In 1919, together with other avant-garde artists Kliment Red’ko and Nina Genke-Meller,  she decorated  the streets  and squares of Kiev and Odessa in abstract style for  Revolution Festivities.  She worked  with Vadym Meller as a costume designer in a ballet studio of the dancer Bronislava Nijinska.

In 1921, she became a director of the elementary course Color at the Higher Artistic-Technical Workshop ( VKhUTEMAS ) in Moscow, a position she  held until 1924. Her work was displayed alongside that of other Constructivist artists at the 5×5=25 exhibition held in Moscow in 1921.

In line with her eclectic avant-garde-like style, Ekster’s early paintings strongly influenced  her costume design as well as her book illustrations, which are scarcely noted.   All of Ekster’s works,  no matter  the medium,  stick to her distinct style. Her works are vibrant,  playful,  dramatic, and theatrical in composition, subject matter, and color. Ekster constantly stayed true to her composition aesthetic across all mediums.   Furthermore, each medium only enhanced and influenced her work in other mediums.

With her assimilation of many different genres,  her essential futurist and cubist ideas were always in tandem with her attention to colour and rhythm.  Ekster uses many elements of geometric compositions, which reinforce the core intentions of dynamism, vibrant contrasts, and free brushwork.  Ekster stretched the dynamic intentions of her work across all mediums. Ekster’s theatrical works such as sculptures,  costume design, set design, and decorations for the revolutionary festivals, strongly reflect her work with geometric elements and vibrant intentions. Through  her costume  work, she experimented with the transparency, movement, and vibrancy of fabrics.  Ekster’s  movement  of her brushstroke in her artwork is reflected in the movement of the fabric in her costumes. Ekster’s theatrical sets used multi-coloured dimensions and experimented with spatial structures.  She continued with these experimental tendencies in her later puppet designs. With her experimentation across many mediums, Ekster started to take the concept of her costume designing and integrate it into everyday life.   In 1921, Ekster’s work in fashion design began. Though  her mass production designs were wearable,  most of her  fashion design  was highly decorative and innovative, usually falling under the category of haute couture.

In 1923, she continued her work in many media in addition to collaborating with Vera Mukhina and Boris Gladkov in Moscow on the decor of the All Russian Exhibition pavilions.

In 1924, Aleksandra Ekster and her husband emigrated to France and settled in Paris, where  she initially became a professor at the Academie Moderne. From 1926 to 1930,  Ekster  was a professor  at Fernand Léger‘s  Académie d’Art  Contemporain. In 1933, she began creating beautiful  and  original illuminated manuscripts (gouache on paper), perhaps the most important works of the last phase of her life. The “Callimaque” manuscript ( c. 1939, the text being a French translation of a hymn by Hellenistic  poet Callimachus ) is widely  regarded as her masterpiece. In 1936, she participated in the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art  in New York  and went on to have solo exhibitions in Prague and in Paris. She was a book illustrator for the publishing company Flammarion in Paris from 1936 until her death in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses.