Aleksandra Ekster in MERSH

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I don’t remember when the editor of MERSH (Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History) first appealed to me to write a series of articles about Russian theater artists. It might have been around 2003/2004, but it might have been earlier. Over the years I have moved my files from computer to computer so many times that the origin date on the pieces I wrote for MERSH are lost. Be that as it may, this is another of the many side projects I have done over the years which gave me a great deal of pleasure. Again, I was able to stretch way out of the usual and do some important – and fascinating (for me!) – work. In all I apparently wrote eight articles for the MERSH supplements. They have never been accessible to anyone but those who purchase the editions, or who frequent libraries that purchase them. (Here is what the MERSH website says about purchase, in the event that you’re interested: “Presently MERSH consists of 59 volumes plus one index volume [index to Volumes 1-10; indexes for every ten volumes in preparation]. Volumes are $45 each; Index volumes $55 each. $2,900 the set., including Supplements. Special terms available for libraries or individuals wishing to acquire the set incrementally.”) Being a freedom-loving person myself, I’d like to give a little freedom to these pieces that have been pretty much locked up since they were written. We begin with Aleksandra Ekster.

Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History
By John Freedman

EKSTER, ALEKSANDRA ALEKSANDROVNA (1882-1949). Multi-disciplinary artist and theater designer, a seminal figure in the modernist movement in Russia in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. 

Ekster was born in Belostok (Białystok in Polish). Her father Aleksandr Avraamovich Grigorovich was a high-ranking official in the Russian imperial tax service. She began attending courses at the Kiev School of Art 1901, leaving in 1907 to visit Paris with her first husband Nikolai Yevgenievich Ekster (?-1918), a prominent attorney. There the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) introduced her to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) who exerted notable influence on her. For the next decade Ekster traveled often between Russia and Europe, studying, painting, teaching, and exhibiting her works in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, St. Petersburg, Paris, Rome, and other cities. She made her professional entry into the Russian art world in 1908, when she showed paintings at an exhibition organized by the Kiev journal V mire iskusstv (In the world of the arts), met the artists David Davidovich Burliuk (1882-1967), Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov (1881-1964) and Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova (1881-1962) in Moscow, and illustrated her first book, the novella Rytsar iz Niurnberga (The Knight from Nuremberg), by Olga Dmitrievna Forsh (1873-1961). 

Ekster took part in the first Knave of Diamonds exhibit that opened in Moscow in December 1910. At this time, under the sway of Picasso but showing evident individuality, she primarily painted Cubist still lifes and urban landscapes. By around 1915, as she grew closer to members of the Italian and Russian Futurist movements, she increasingly experimented with abstractions and continued to participate in nearly all of the major exhibits of the time, usually alongside Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin (1885-1953), Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878-1935, Liubov Sergeevna Popova (1889-1924), Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko (1891-1956), and others. Ekster was one of the artists featured in the 5×5=25 exhibit in Moscow in 1921. In her paintings she sought to reveal movement and even sound through bold colors, dynamic lines, and geometrical shapes. She was also important as a teacher. Her salon in Kiev in the early 1910s and again in 1918-1920 gave a start to many artists of note, including Pavel Fedorovich Chelishchev (Tchelitchev, 1898-1957) and Aleksandr Grigorievich Tyshler (1898-1980). She taught in Moscow at the Higher Artistic-Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS) from 1921 to 1922.

Ekster met theater director Aleksandr Yakovlevich Tairov (1885-1950) in 1915, leading to a short, but historically momentous, partnership. Ekster’s set and costumes for Tairov’s production of Innokenty Annensky’s (1855-1909) Thamyris, the Kithara Player at the Moscow Kamerny (Chamber) Theater were unveiled 2 November 1916 and signaled a new era in theater design. The innovative Tairov had dreamed of a design style that could form what he called the rhythmic carcass of a play’s action and he found it in Ekster’s work. Her set consisted of black conical cypress trees and gold and black cubist cliffs at the left and right wings, and uneven blue steps between them leading to an open, elevated platform at the back of the stage. The composition of lines and shapes gave the impression that the set was in constant upward motion. The colorful, exotic costumes, made of draped material united by thongs or straps, sensuously revealed arms, legs, backs and midriffs. They were topped by ornate headgear. The sensational success of Thamyris was superceded by the Tairov-Ekster collaboration on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which premiered at the Kamerny on 9 October 1917. The performance space was split into two zones, an open terrace that served as Herod’s palace quarters and a closed space occupied by Salomé. The contours of the environment were constructed in lines, partial ovals and triangles and were colored in deep hues of red, blue, and black. The richly colored costumes employed cloth cut in triangles and sunburst shapes. Ekster worked with Tairov a third and final time on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which premiered on 17 May 1921. Her grand set and costumes, again combinations of abstract figures and geometrical forms, were considered brilliant works of art in their own right but were said to overpower the actors so that the production failed. Nevertheless, the impact of Ekster’s designs was enormous. When Constructivism swept Russian stages in the early 1920s, Ekster was acknowledged as a founder and master of the style. 

From 1918 to 1925 Ekster designed costumes for ballets staged by Mikhail Mikhailovich Mordkin (1881-1944), Bronislawa Fominichna Nijinska (1891-1972), and Boris Georgievich Romanov (1891-1957), but many of her performance designs remained unfinished. These included three aborted productions at the Moscow Art Theater (1920-1921) and a planned production of Ballet Satanique in 1922 with choreographer Kasian Yaroslavich Goleizovsky (1892-1970). In 1926 she created a series of commedia dell’arte-style puppets for an unrealized film by Danish director Urban Gad (1879-1947), and her work with director Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov (1879-1953) on the film Doch Geliosa (Helios’ Daughter) came to naught in 1927. The extant sketches, models, and completed puppets have contributed significantly to Ekster’s reputation. 

Ekster’s costumes for the science fiction film Aelita by Yakov Aleksandrovich Protazanov (1881-1945) are among the most famous in Soviet cinema. Her Martians and space travelers were elegant, humorous, and convincingly alien in outlandish attire that combined elements of haute couture and high technology. In 1923 and 1924 she designed everyday clothing for the Moscow Fashion Studio and was one of a team of artists who designed parade uniforms for the Red Army. 

Ekster immigrated to Paris in 1924 and taught theater and design at Ferdinand Leger’s (1881-1951) Academie d’Art Contemporain until 1930 when she and her second husband, the former actor Georgy Georgievich Nekrasov (1878-1945), settled in Fontanay-aux-Roses. Through the 1930s she created designs for the music hall, operetta, circus, and theater, often crafting costumes for the dancer Elsa (Elizaveta Emilievna) Krüger at the Cologne Opera. In the 1930s and 1940s she increasingly spent time illustrating and designing books for the Parisian publisher Flammarion. 

Bibliography: Iakov Tugenkhol’d, Aleksandra Ekster kak zhivopisets i khudozhnik (Berlin, 1922); A. Nakov, Alexandra Exter (Paris, 1972), John Bowlt, “Alexandra Exter. A Veritable Amazon of the Russian Avant-Garde,” Art News (Sept. 1974), 41-43; Georgy F. Kovalenko, Aleksandra Ekster. Put’ khudozhnika. Khudozhnik i vremia (M., 1993); John Milner, A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1993), 136-139; John Bowlt and Matthew Drutt, eds., Amazons of the Avant-garde. Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova (New York, 1999); John E. Bowlt, Jean Chauvelin, Nadia Filatoff, and Dimytro Horbachov, Alexandra Exter. Monagrafie (Chevilly-Larue, France, 2003).

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