A crucial and influential member of the avant-garde elite of the early 20th century, Aleksandra Exter pioneered new modes of artistic expression throughout her creative output, which ranged from paintings, drawings and pochoirs, to stage and costume designs. Most notably, Exter introduced and applied the tenets of Constructivism to the art of scenic design in her designs for the Kamerny Theatre, founded by Alexander Tairov (1885-1950), which electrified her fellow creatives and art critics alike. Yet, it is important to note that the developments and innovations she made in her theatre designs also permeate the other media she worked in, and are particularly noticeable in the present lot, Carnival in Venice.
Behind the painting lies a remarkable story: one of friendship, bravery and altruism. For decades, Carnival in Venice was in the collection of Ihnno Ezratty, a Jewish textile industrialist who became friends with Exter after she settled in Paris. Their friendship was incredibly close: Exter saved the businessman’s life when she hid him from the Nazis as they swept through Paris arresting and deporting Jewish populations to the concentration camps. In gratitude, Ezratty bought a number of paintings from the artist as well as helped Exter find a studio and secure commissions. In a reciprocal mark of gratitude, upon her death, Exter made Ezratty one of the executors of her estate and bequeathed a number of works to him. The painter Simon Lissim (1900-1981) was another close friend of the artist, and the executor of her estate in the United States.
Born into a comfortable, bourgeois family, to a Belarusian father and a Greek mother, Exter grew up in the multicultural and bustling Kiev, studying languages, art and music from a young age. She attended the Kiev Art School where she studied alongside Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) and Alexander Bogomazov (1880-1930). In 1908, she married the lawyer Nikolai Exter (d. 1918) and from 1924 lived and worked in Paris, Moscow, St Petersburg, Odessa and Kiev. Her time in Paris was particularly fruitful: she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and began to exhibit in 1912; her new work showing the influence of Cubo-Futurism. During these trips across Europe she became acquainted with the Cubist master Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and the greats of Italian Futurism, Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) and Ardengo Soffici (1879-1964). Subsequently, she exhibited alongside the Italian avant-garde and shared a studio with Soffici in Paris in 1914. She began to create set designs and costumes for the Kamerny Theatre in Moscow from the mid-1910s onwards. Alexander Tairov was particularly struck by her spatial innovations: 'most of the canvases of this painter suggest that her paintings remain constrained within the limits of the frame and that this painter has the gift of building in space' (quoted in the preface to A. Exter, Teatral'nye dekoratsii, Paris, 1930). In 1924 Exter left for Italy on the pretext of working for the Venice Biennale, but eventually managed to cross to France where she settled in Paris until her death in 1949. Once settled in Paris, she was a professor at Fernand Léger’s Académie d'Art Contemporain for four years.
Exter’s pictorial advances and innovations are overt in Carnival in Venice: the characters depicted are elevated on a bridge in the centre of the composition, similar to a platform in a stage construction, which adds a sense of theatricality to the canvas. The façades and fragments of Venetian buildings mimic the interlocking planes of panels and screens of the backstage, that is, the elements that announce the preparation and frenzy of theatre in progress, elements also explored in the artist’s oil Theatrical Composition (circa 1925, Museum of Modern Art, inv. 225.1991.b). Moreover, these architectural elements recall Venice’s unique Gothic architecture, such as the windows with a characteristic ogee arch, that unambiguously locate it in Venice, while the emblem of the city, a gondola, is also depicted in the composition, in the upper left. The figures recall the masked archetypes of the Commedia dell’arte which originated in Italy and is often linked to the famed Carnevale di Venezia; their chequered costumes reference Arlecchino, the mischievous and resourceful servant, a stock character in the Commedia dell’arte. Other references to Venice proliferate the composition: the dominant use of ultramarine blue in the present lot mirrors the Venetian master Titian’s predilection for the sublime shade, which during the Renaissance was valued for its pure vibrancy. Through the bright and bold colour contrasts Exter expresses the vivacity and unique magic of the historic town of Venice and its carnival.
Exter’s oils seldom appear on the market, and works with such exceptional provenance are even rarer. Exter remains to this day one of the few successful female artists of the Russian avant-garde: her works are held in the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum, London (some of which were donated by Simon Lissim), the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. As a result of her long-lasting success and extraordinary talent, Exter’s artworks have broken the £1 million barrier twice at auction and consistently draw high prices on the market.