Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop




In Odessa, there is a nice attraction — the Garden of Sculptures at the Literary Museum. Each of them is dedicated to special people, events and places, and by the way they look, it is easy to guess that they were installed on April 1st.

One of the monuments is called the «Silver Age». On its pedestal there are about a dozen names of literary movements: acmeism, futurism, symbolism, constructivism, imagism… The Silver Age gave birth to them all at once. In painting, by the way, there were no less of them.

Almost any notable art worker at that time either adhered to one of the trends, or founded it himself — anything happened… We remember that Blok is a symbolist, Mandelstam is an acmeist, Mayakovsky is a futurist, and with artists something similar, why not?

So I think that everyone will be curious about the life of the artist, whose work is quite rightly ranked as Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, Constructionism, Impressionism, Abstractionism, and who is also considered one of the founders of the whole style — art deco.

She is also called avant-garde quite rightly — representatives of all the listed styles fit this term. And not only an artist — she is a decorator, a fashion designer, a teacher, a decorator of mass celebrations, and a creator of handwritten books.

By the way, she also taught in my native Odessa, but this is not even necessary to include in her biography in this heading — although she was born in the now Polish Bialystok, she was from Kiev by education. Now it would be simply dishonest for me not to tell about Alexandra Exter… 




In the family of a Belarusian (or Belarusian Jew) and a Greek woman, at the very beginning of 1882, the daughter Alexandra was born, for future acquaintances — just Asya. My father was a collegiate assessor — a small rank, about a captain or a major, giving only personal nobility.

In the service of Asin, the father was forced to move when his daughter was only three years old — first to Smela, now it is the Cherkasy region, and then directly to Kiev. In Kiev, she graduated from the women’s gymnasium of St. Princess Olga and received a completely high-quality education. Where to go?

Asya made a non-standard choice in the spirit of the times — she entered the Kiev Art School. There, such notable artists as one of the most famous cubist sculptors Alexander Archipenko and the founder of the «Jack of Diamonds» Aristarkh Lentulov studied with her.

But she did not succeed in completing her studies at the estimated time — it is more difficult for girls, her personal life interferes. A sudden great love arose with his cousin, a successful lawyer Nikolay Exter. Asya takes her husband’s surname and already under it remains in the history of art.




Asya was clearly lucky with her husband — he was a more than modern person and did not even try to limit her in anything, including in search of herself. He not only did not criticize her desire to engage in art, but also encouraged. They lived quite richly and could travel.

Right on a long honeymoon trip to Europe, the husband introduced Asya to a friend-artist Alexey Yavlenskiy, and he immediately saw that she had talent, and began to acquaint her with friends-artists, including Wassily Kandinsky himself — not bad for a start!

Continuing her studies at the Kiev Art School as a volunteer, she simultaneously organizes a salon-workshop in her own house — the funds allow. This salon has become a meeting place for Kiev representatives of avant-garde art, their point of contact.

Asya herself is strict with her fellow countrymen. After one of the Kiev exhibitions, she writes: «Artists from Kiev, first of all, are not artists, but some people without any taste, for whom, judging by their works, drawings on candy boxes represent an unattainable ideal».

Let’s take her words calmly, with a discount for age — there are not so few immigrants from the Kiev artistic environment, whom we remember now. Unfortunately, Dmitriy Kedrin is right — «The poets have such a custom: coming together in a circle, spit on each other». And the artists…


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Alexandra Exter. City at Night, 1919 / wikiart.org




In 1907, she studied in Paris at the Académie Grande-Chaumiere and along the way made friends with Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso. Picasso just shook her to the core — like so many. Trips to Europe pleased her so much that they became frequent and almost usual to her life.

In 1912, in Italy  she met with the artist Ardengo Sofici, and with his help with other rulers of the Italian minds. With Soffichi, she had a short, but stormy romance, about which he told everyone in a completely unworthy tone. The husband did not react in any way — and thanks for that.

It’s good to live with a husband like that! You live wherever you want, in all places not only in the Russian Empire, but also in Europe, you participate in almost all notable avant-garde exhibitions — from the Russian Jack of Diamonds to the French Salon of Independents — and you gain a reputation.

She not only adjoins creative groups, but organizes them — for example, the group of cubo-futurists «Ring». She also joins Malevich’s group «Supremus» — after all, Malevich trusted her so much that she was the only person whom he allowed into his workshop.

Her authority was so great that in a number of artistic conflicts she acts as an arbitrator — for example, during the preparation of the exhibition «0.10», which, according to many, would have ended in disaster without her diplomacy. She was trusted and this trust grew.




And in 1916, Exter also became a theater artist, and collaborated with a bright, fashionable theater that occupies a noticeable and worthy place in world history — the Chamber Theater, whose leader was the outstanding director Alexandr Yakovlevich Tairov.

Exter and Tairov were introduced by the avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, no less famous than Alexandra. The very next morning after their acquaintance Tairov told his wife, the great actress Alisa Koonen: «I spent the night with a wonderful woman!»

It is unlikely that Koonen beat Tairov with a broom for this — she was a person of the same environment and understood that only creativity, not sex, causes real delight. That night Tairov and Exter sat down to «have tea», and in the morning finished the work plan for the play «Famira Kifared».

Koonen remembered: «In her Parisian home, as well as in herself, there was a peculiar combination of European culture with Ukrainian life. On the walls among Picasso and Braque there were Ukrainian embroidery, on the floor — a Ukrainian carpet. Served to the table… majolica plates with dumplings».

The complex and unfamiliar drama of Innokenty Annensky, set by Exter, became another theatrical sensation of Tairov. And soon Exter designed Wilde’s drama «Salome» no less interestingly in his theater. The play came out just a few months before the revolution…


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Alexandra Exter, costume sketch for the play «Famira Kifared» by I. Annensky. Menade, 1916 / wikiart.org


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In the revolution, life always begins to rush at a gallop, and for Exter no one made an exception. In 1918, her husband dies of cholera, and her father-in-law, poorly tolerating the bohemian daughter-in-law, kicks her out of the house and does not even give her the pictures — many of them have disappeared almost without a trace.

Fortunately, the avant-gardists are in demand by the revolution (at first, of course). Exter opens her workshop of decorative art, illustrates futuristic books, creates sketches for clothes, pillows, lampshades, and even designs uniforms for the Red Army.

She is also engaged in decorating the streets of Kiev and Odessa for revolutionary holidays — like Marc Chagall in Vitebsk and Aristarkh Lentulov in Moscow. How does it feel for all of these eternally extremists to feel pro-government, approved, and recommended? There are clearly problems with this…

In addition to all this, Exter works as a costume designer in the studio of Bronislava Nijinska — the same one from which another hero of our column came out, a wonderful dancer and choreographer Sergey Lifar. In general, she has enough work, but is she significant?


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Alexandra Exter. Costume design for Salome, 1917 / wikiart.org




In 1920, Alexandra returned to Moscow and remarried. Her second husband, actor Georgiy Nekrasov, seems rustic next to the goddess of the then artistic Olympus, but loves her very much and cares about her touchingly, and this is much more important than external politeness.

Her collaboration with Tairov continues with the play «Romeo and Juliet». The reviews for the sets and costumes created by her are simply wonderful, for the performance itself — much worse. Moreover, the critic Abram Efros calls the culprit of the performance’s failure exactly Exter, and not Tairov.

Here are his words: «It happened not because the scenery turned out to be bad — it couldn’t be, Exter did it! — on the contrary, because they were too good, or rather, luxurious… Tairov summoned spirits, which he could not cope with. The most powerful of them was Exter».

The proud and self-confident Tairov, like the invariably regal by the way and inopportune Koonen, could not accept such an explanation. The cooperation between Tairov and Exter ceased forever. Not everyone will agree with me, but I think it was bad for all of them.



She immediately spent the free time on a project that became the beginning of a new genre of Soviet cinema — the creation of scenery and costumes for the film by Yakov Protazanov «Aelita» based on the famous story by Alexey Tolstoy, the firstborn of Soviet science fiction cinema.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Alexandra Exter. Costume sketch of Queen Mars for the movie «Aelita», 1924 / wikiart.org


The selection of artists was exceptional. Aelita was played by Dovzhenko’s wife Yulia Solntseva, Gusev was played by Alexey Batalov’s uncle Nikolay, the role of amateur detective Kravtsov became the film debut of Igor Ilyinskiy, the crook Erlich was played by the popular comedian Pavel Paul — solid superstar!

The film was an undoubted success — for a long time at its screenings in the Moscow cinema «Ars» there were continuous sold-outs. But Soviet critics did not particularly favor this film, accusing filmmakers of being alien to the interests of the working class. Then it was easy with this…

But over time it turned out that this is a recognized classic not even of Soviet, but rather of world fiction, it is quite possible that the first full-length film about space flight. Famed science fiction writer Frederic Paul writes that this is one of the best SF silent films.




Exter has lots of orders, and the status of these orders is high. In 1923, she decorated the pavilions «Izvestiya TsIK and All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the USSR» and «Krasnaya Niva» for the First All-Russian Agricultural and Handicraft-Industrial Exhibition together with Vera Mukhina.

And in 1924 she was included in the group organizing the Soviet art pavilion at the XIV International Art Biennale in Venice. She went with pleasure, took her husband with her, completed all the work, that was necessary to decorate the pavilion, and that was all. Didn’t come back.

Then there was no treason in this — it began already in the 30s. It’s just that Fernand Léger offered her a job at the Academy of Contemporary Art. Pupils recalled that Exter «taught brilliantly, but annoyed that she often remembered Ukraine, which no one knew about».

It’s just that quite a few artists similar to Exter in the direction of creativity (the same Chagall) made similar decisions, and their further life proceeded in Europe and America — hardly just like that. But none of them died in prison, was not shot, did not become an enemy of the people…



On the other side of the border, they were quite interested in her work at one time. Her exhibitions were held in Berlin, and in London, and in Paris, and in New York, and in many other places — the last major lifetime exhibition was held in Prague in 1937.

Since 1930, Exter has settled in the suburb of Paris Fontenay-aux-Roses and has not left it all her life. Over time, the circle of her interests moves from easel painting to interior design, ceramics painting, and a very peculiar book graphics.

Another way to use Exter’s creativity is with puppets. Collectors appreciate them very much, and their value is increased by the fact that most of these puppets were created by individual order and in a single copy.

Some of her books were also deliberately published in a paltry print run — from one to five copies, commissioned by amateur bibliophiles. Like the book «Ode to Bacchus», several pages of which are shown in the picture. Why such a small circulation? The customers wanted it so badly…

A special place was taken by the books by Marie Colmont illustrated by her «Panorama of the river», «Panorama of the coast» and «Panorama of the mountain». And now they are valuable objects of collection. It’s just a special, rather narrow niche. It became more and more difficult for Alexandra to work, and they lived worse and worse.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Marie Colmont’s «Panorama of the Mountain», «Panorama of the Shore» and «Panorama of the Mountain», illustrated by Alexandra Exter / shapiroauctions.com




Many even show surprise — how such bright and joyful things as books and puppets, Exter contrived to create when life treated her more and more severely. Her fame fell, her income decreased, her husband helped as best he could, but he could not do everything.

During the years of occupation, everyone lived so hard, and Exter and her husband were no exception. Most likely, they did not starve, but they endured constant need — this can be seen from the lines from her letters to friends. And when her husband died in 1947, it became even more difficult. It’s always difficult for lonely people.

She had a premonition of bad things, even wrote: «The coming winter will be very hard. This is the ninth winter since the beginning of the war, and it will be the hardest for me». There was where to get bad premonitions — and they were justified: on March 17, 1949, Alexandra Exter left this world.

She bequeathed all her surviving works to her fellow Kievite, whom she had known since the beginning of the century, Semyon Lissim. He accepted her legacy, attached some of the works to museums in the United States, which were able to sufficiently interest them, and saved the rest until better times.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Alexandra Exter — Ukrainian avant-garde artist, one of the founders of the Art Deco style
Alexandra Esther, Marionette. Spanish dancer, 1926 / collection.mcnayart.org




Was it worth waiting for these best times? And moreover, it did not take long to wait. The 70s were marked by a return of interest in her work. The first posthumous exhibition of the artist took place in Paris in 1972 — the works survived the years of oblivion and aroused interest again.

In 1987, her exhibition was held in the Moscow Bakhrushin Museum — half a century after the last lifetime opening day in Prague. And in 2000, on the basis of her legacy saved by Lissim, the Alexandra Exter Society was opened, which continues to spread it.

Some kind of original proof of the value of Exter’s work is also in the fact that now the Russian avant-garde artists of the beginning of the twentieth century have become fashionable, and they began to be forged on a completely unimaginable scale. There are a lot of fakes of Exter’s works now, and this is a problem.

Not so long ago, the exhibition «Exter and Her Friends» held in Tours caused indignation of the chairman of the Society, Alexandra Exter, Doctor of Art History Nakov. According to him, the counterfeiters did not even know how to write the Cyrillic letters correctly, not to mention other obvious blunders.

And what about Exter’s memory in Ukraine? A number of her works are exhibited at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, and this is wonderful. But that’s all. Look at the house she lived in. Bohdan Khmelnitsky 27/1 — is there a memorial plaque there? Still no. It is clear — everything is as usual…


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