Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster (18 January 1882 – 17 March 1949), also known as Alexandra Exter, was a Russian painter (Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist, Constructivist) and designer of international stature who divided her life between Kiev, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris.
In Kiev, 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.
In Paris, Aleksandra Ekster was a personal friend of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who introduced her to Gertrude Stein.
In 1914, Ekster 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 friend 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 a Ukrainian carpet, at the table they served clay pots, colorful majolica plates of dumplings.”
While not confined within a particular movement, Exter 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, Natalia Davidova, Nina Genke, Liubov Popova, Ivan Puni, Olga Rozanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova and others. Ekster later founded a teaching and production workshop (MDI) in Kiev (1918–1920). Vadym 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 line with her eclectic avant-guard-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 was 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 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. During the past few decades her reputation has increased dramatically, as have the prices of her works. As a consequence, several fakes have appeared on the market in recent years.