The cham­pion of Avant-Garde:

The life and in­spi­ra­tion of Olek­san­dra Ek­ster

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The life and in­spi­ra­tion of Olek­san­dra Ek­ster

On Jan­uary 18, Alek­san­dra Ek­ster, Olek­san­dra in Ukrainian, turned 135. She is among the top avant-garde artists cur­rently dis­played at A Revo­lu­tion­ary Im­pulse: The Rise of the Rus­sian Avant-Garde at the New York MoMa. The brief bio note by her works says that she is a Rus­sian artist. In fact, she lived three years at most in Rus­sia. Kyiv and Paris were two most im­por­tant cities in her life. And it was in Kyiv that she lived the long­est. An ex­quis­ite in­tel­lec­tual, Olek­san­dra spoke sev­eral lan­guages, trav­elled the world and so­cial­ized with the top artists of her time, in­clud­ing Pablo Pi­casso, Ge­orges Braque, Fer­nand Léger, Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, Ar­dengo Sof­fici and Filippo Tom­maso Marinetti. She was a bridge between Ukrainian and Rus­sian avant-garde and new art of Western Europe. Olek­san­dra brought Cubo-Fu­tur­ism to Ukraine, in­spired Pi­casso to use bright col­ors, reformed ap­proach to scenog­ra­phy and com­bined avant-garde art with Ukrainian em­broi­dery.


Оlek­san­dra Olek­san­drivna Hry­horovych was born on Jan­uary 18, 1882, in Bi­ałys­tok of the then Grodno Gu­ber­nia, cur­rently in Poland. Her fa­ther Olek­sandr Hry­horovych was Be­lar­isuan, her mother was Greek. When she was two, her fam­ily moved to Smila, a town in Cen­tral Ukraine. Her fa­ther soon got a job in Kyiv and the city be­came her home for 35 years. Olek­san­dra grad­u­ated from the St. Olga Women’s Gym­na­sium, then the class of Mykola Py­mo­nenko at the Kyiv Art Col­lege. Her class­mates were re­mark­able fu­tur­ists, Alek­sandr Bo­homa­zov and Olek­sandr Arkhy­penko. Also, she took pri­vate classes at the stu­dio of Ser­hiy Svi­toslavsky. Para­dox­i­cally, Py­mo­nenko did not ac­cept new art but all of his stu­dents in­her­ited his love for eth­nic themes and vi­brant col­ors that are typ­i­cal in folk art. Ek­ster was no ex­cep­tion, as well as Bo­homa­zov, Arkhy­penko and Male­vich who prob­a­bly at­tended Py­mo­nenko’s stu­dio as a teenager.

In 1903, Olek­san­dra mar­ried Mykola Ek­ster, a Kyiv lawyer. From 1905 to 1920, the Ek­sters lived at Fun­duk­leyivska 27, cur­rently Bo­hdana Kh­mel­nyt­skoho Street in down­town Kyiv. They had no chil­dren. Olek­san­dra ded­i­cated all her time to trav­el­ling and art. Life in the then pro­vin­cial Kyiv was not ac­tive enough for the en­er­getic and cu­ri­ous bud­ding artist. In 1907, Olek­san­dra set out on her Euro­pean tour.

Her first visit to Paris was in 1907. Thanks to Apol­li­naire, she met Pi­casso and Braque, and found her­self at the heart of the Euro­pean art scene. Pi­casso just had his in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful Les De­moi­selles d’Avi­gnon, Cu­bism was mov­ing from re­flec­tion of re­al­ity to ab­strac­tion. Olek­san­dra got car­ried away with the con­cept of Cu­bism; they changed her art rad­i­cally, though she didn’t dare ap­ply those con­cepts in her work just yet. Once back in her stu­dio in Kyiv, she spoke about the cre­ative ex­per­i­ments of Pi­casso and Braque, and all the art folk of town came to lis­ten. Even­tu­ally, Ek­ster turned into a mag­net for young artists.


Kyiv did not have much gallery life in the early 1900s. It mostly fea­tured aca­demic art but did not leave much space for ex­per­i­ment. In that con­text, the new art show Link ar­ranged by Ek­ster and Davyd Burliuk at Khreshchatyk in 1908, was a bomb. It was part of the cy­cle of shows staged in Moscow, St. Peters­burg and Kher­son, ex­hibit­ing works by Olek­san­dra, Burliuk broth­ers, Mikhail Lar­i­onov, Aris­tarkh Len­tulov and others. How­ever, the pro­vin­cial taste of the Kyiv au­di­ence 110 years back proved re­silient. The show was poorly at­tended, es­pe­cially that there was an en­trance fee. Crit­ics didn’t re­strain them­selves in foul words and the show ended up with few pos­i­tive re­views. Dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion, Davyd Burliuk was spread­ing his “Im­pres­sion­ist’s voice in sup­port of


art” leaflets. That was one of the ear­li­est man­i­festos of new art, even if it was a state­ment of just one artist and not ev­ery­one shared the idea. The Link be­came part of the in­ter­na­tional his­tory of art but never a mean­ing­ful happening in the eyes of the Kyiv pub­lic.

This did not stop Olek­san­dra from in­tro­duc­ing Kyiv to new ex­per­i­ments in art. In 1914, Kyiv saw the show Cir­cle which she opened to­gether with Olek­sandr Bo­homa­zov. The de­bate about new art grew much more ac­tive in Kyiv by then (fu­tur­ist po­ets met from Moscow and St. Peters­burg per­former here; fu­tur­ist poet Mykhail Se­menko an­nounced the laun­chof the Kvero group). But many were still far from un­der­stand­ing and ac­cept­ing artis­tic ex­per­i­ment. That’s why the Cir­cle was not pop­u­lar with the au­di­ence and the crit­ics used the op­por­tu­nity to mock the show. It fea­tured Kyiv-based artists only, in­clud­ing Ek­ster, Bo­homa­zov and Denysova, as well as mem­bers of the art stu­dio at the Kyiv Poly­tech­nic In­sti­tute. Ap­par­ently the level of works was un­even: some were by begin­ners and am­a­teur artists. That was one of the rea­sons for the neg­a­tive re­views. Still, the in­no­va­tive value of this ap­proach and the ben­e­fits for young artists is hardly a ques­tion.


Olek­san­dra won her place in the his­tory of art pri­mar­ily thanks to her re­formist ideas in scenog­ra­phy. She was the first to come up with com­plex mul­ti­lay­ered con­struc­tions in­stead of the typ­i­cal flat painted dec­o­ra­tions, thus fill­ing the en­tire stage space, not just the floor. Her se­cond in­no­va­tion in the­atre was cos­tumes.

Three shows at the Tairov Cham­ber The­atre in Moscow, in­clud­ing drama Famira Ki­fared in 1916, Salomea in 19171 and Romeo and Juliet in 1921, brought her world fame as a re­former in scenog­ra­phy. The way she com­bined her ex­pe­ri­ence from Cu­bism, Fu­tur­ism and Supre­ma­tism, with the new plas­tic drama of the Poltava-born di­rec­tor Olek­sand Tairov changed the no­tion of the­atre for good. For var­i­ous rea­sons, this tan­dem did not last, although Olek­san­dra con­tin­ued to work on other plays. Art ex­pert Abram Efros re­ferred to her dec­o­ra­tions as “the solemn pa­rade of Cu­bism”. The im­ages cre­ated with Olek­san­dra’s cos­tumes were ex­ces­sively ex­pres­sive, pas­sion­ate, al­most ex­treme and full of the hyp­no­tis­ing power.

In the early 1920s, Olek­san­dra worked on cos­tumes for the TV pro­duc­tion of Alek­sey Tol­stoy’s Aelita by di­rec­tor Yakov Pro­tazanov, but her sketches never made it to the screen. The di­rec­tor used his own ideas, though in­flu­enced by Olek­san­dra.

In Kyiv, Ek­ster cre­ated dec­o­ra­tions for the bal­lets by Bro­nislava Niżyński, sis­ter of Wacław Niżyński, the Kyiv-born star of Di­aghilev’s Bal­lets Russes. Ap­par­ently, it was dur­ing these shows that Olek­san­dra be­gan to paint over nude body parts of fe­male dancers. This was the pro­to­type of mod­ern body art. Olek­san­dra also fo­cused on the light­ing as part of the drama ac­tion and in­vited an elec­tric op­er­a­tor to co-stage the shows. Thus light ef­fects and the trans­for­ma­tion of a lamp op­er­a­tor into the light­ing di­rec­tor ap­peared in Kyiv.


1918 was cru­cial for Olek­san­dra, as well as for many others. She re­turned to Kyiv for the hol­i­days af­ter the sen­sa­tional de­but of Salomea in Moscow and had to stay here till mid-1920. One rea­son was the dec­la­ra­tion of the Ukrainian Peo­ple’s Repub­lic, the UNR, the mas­sacre in Kyiv by the Bol­she­vik Gen­eral Mu­ravyov, and the sub­se­quent po­lit­i­cal dra­mas that un­folded in and around Kyiv at that time. The other rea­son was that her hus­band Mykola got se­ri­ously ill and never re­cov­ered. That kept Olek­san­dra grounded for some time. Thanks to that break the Kyiv stu­dio of Olek­san­dra Ek­ster opened.

She had an in­nate abil­ity to dis­cover artis­tic po­ten­tial in others, re­veal tal­ents and open artists. Ek­ster’s School was not just any tra­di­tional art school. It was more of a hub where artists met, com­mu­ni­cated and ob­served the work of mas­ters. Most of Olek­san­dra’s for­mer stu­dents (Vadym Meller, Olek­sandr Tysh­ler, Ana­toliy Petryt­sky, Olek­sandr Khvostenko-Khvos­tov, Isaak Rabi­novych, Kly­ment Redko, Pavel Che­l­ishchev and others) never man­aged to shed the Ek­ster in­flu­ence. Her Kyiv stu­dio was a place where po­ets got to­gether. It is thanks to her that Ukrainian Cubo-Fu­tur­ism ap­peared. The phe­nom­e­non of Ukrainian avant-garde, as it is known to­day, also be­gan to shape in her stu­dio.

In ad­di­tion to the paint­ing classes, Olek­san­dra and her stu­dents were in­volved in dec­o­rat­ing Kyiv’s streets for the first Bol­she­vik cel­e­bra­tions. She got to work on Khreshchatyk, the same street where she had pre­vi­ously staged two shows of new art in 1908 and 1914, even if with lit­tle suc­cess. When asked about the task of con­tem­po­rary Ukrainian art at the All-Ukrainian As­sem­bly of Art Or­ga­ni­za­tions in June 1918, she said: “We need more free creativ­ity and less provin­cial­ism”. In­ter­est­ingly, this state­ment is still true for the con­tem­po­rary Ukrainian art of the cur­rent times. Back in 1918, the gov­ern­ment of het­man Pavlo Sko­ropad­sky de­signed a pro­gram to de­velop art in Ukraine. There is no such thing in the mod­ern Ukraine to­day.

Ek­ster’s stu­dio taught both adults and chil­dren. She used to say that chil­dren are close to avant-garde art thanks to their la­conic ex­pres­sion and open­ness to col­ors, as well as emo­tional spon­tane­ity. She would read a fairy tale to the kids, then give them pa­per, brushes, wa­ter­col­ors, scis­sors and glue, and asked them to do what­ever they pleased. The out­come would of­ten sur­prise ma­ture artists.

The stu­dio worked un­til 1919. When the Bol­she­viks took over Kyiv, Ek­ster fled to Odesa and started teach­ing there.


In the 1910s, ed­u­cated and wealthy women, in­clud­ing Anas­ta­sia Se­myhradova, Natalia Davy­dova, Natalia Yashvil and Var­vara Kha­nenko set up work­shops in vil­lages to re­vive tra­di­tional Ukrainian em­broi­dery. They in­vited Olek­san­dra Ek­ster and Yevhe­nia Pry­byl­ska, another artist, to head the work­shops in the vil­lages of Ver­bivka, mod­ern Cherkasy Oblast in Cen­tral Ukraine, and Skoptsi (to­day’s Ve­se­lynivka in Kyiv Oblast). The two artists cre­ated pat­terns for em­broi­dery and in­vited other pain­ters to cre­ate de­signs. Kaz­imir Male­vich re­placed Ek­ster in a while. The em­broi­dered works were dis­played suc­cess­fully in Kyiv, Moscow, Paris, Ber­lin, Mu­nich and New York. They were used to dec­o­rate clothes, hand­bags, scarves, pil­lows, belts and more ac­ces­sories. Folk artists bor­rowed the dy­nam­ics from the avant-garde artists, while the pain­ters bor­rowed the open and vi­brant col­ors from tra­di­tional art.

In 1915, the ex­hi­bi­tion of em­broi­dery in Moscow dis­played the first Supre­ma­tist works by Kaz­imir Male­vich. Ukrainian women em­broi­dered sev­eral works for the famed Last Fu­tur­ist Ex­hi­bi­tion of Paint­ings 0,10in De­cem­ber a few months be­fore it opened.

Ek­ster was friends with a well-known em­broi­derer Hanna Sobachko and or­ga­nized her show in Kyiv in 1918. “Young Slavic na­tions pre­fer their na­tive light col­ors,” she said at the open­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion. She told the same things to her Parisian friends, Pi­casso and Braque.


Ek­ster fol­lowed the con­cepts of Cu­bism and Fu­tur­ism in vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing, but color. She could not bear the se­condary role of color in such art, while the founders of Cu­bism and Fu­tur­ism be­lieved that it was next to none, and used a min­i­mal pal­ette of purely pas­tel shares and mono­chrome col­or­ing. It was Ek­ster who com­bined the con­cepts of Cu­bism with ab­stract mo­tives and bright col­ors bor­rowed from Ukrainian folk art. She in­spired Pi­casso to use vi­brant col­ors in Cu­bism. In­flu­enced by Ek­ster, this founder of Cu­bism ex­panded his range of col­ors, usinga huge pal­ette and ap­ply­ing con­trasts.

Other than the open and vi­brant col­ors, you will not find any other traces of mo­tives or sto­ry­lines from folk art in Ek­ster’s works. Like the Paris-based artist So­nia De­lau­nay (orig­i­nally from Odesa), Ek­ster ap­plied the in­flu­ence of Ukrainian art to her work as a mat­ter of in­stincts. While De­lau­nay(as well as Male­vich) drew her in­flu­ences from her child­hood mem­o­ries of a Ukrainian wed­ding, Ek­ster made a con­scious choice to ac­cept the traces of folk art through in­ter­ac­tion and friend­ship with em­broi­dery artists from the vil­lage work­shops in Ver­bivka. Both De­lau­nay and Ek­ster are among the founders of Art Deco, a trend in art that com­bines or­na­men­tal­ism and bright col­ors.


In the mid-1920, Ek­ster left Kyiv for good. She lived in Moscow un­til 1923 when Ana­toliy Lu­nacharsky, the then Soviet Com­mis­sar for Ed­u­ca­tion and the only ad­mirer of avant-garde art in the soviet es­tab­lish­ment, asked her to travel to Venice and Paris to pre­pare ex­hi­bi­tions of soviet art there. Af­ter that, she never re­turned to the Soviet Union.

Life in Paris wasn’t easy for her. She was hop­ing that Bro­nislava Niżyński­would in­vite her to stage a bal­let show for the Di­aghilev com­pany in Paris, or that di­rec­tor Olek­sandr Tairov would ask her back to his Cham­ber The­atre in Moscow. But noth­ing hap­pened. Olek­san­dra could

not bear to laze around. So she made clothes, dec­o­rated ce­ramic dish­ware, made pup­pets and il­lus­trated sev­eral copies of Les Livres Manuscrits to mimic old hand­writ­ten ver­sions. She was a per­fec­tion­ist in any­thing she did.

At the same time, she was teach­ing at the Fer­nand Léger's Academy of Mod­ern Art. The stu­dents re­called her as a “bril­liant teacher, but she ir­ri­tates peo­ple by men­tion­ing Ukraine too of­ten which no­body knows.” Ek­ster’s Kyiv maid An­nushka lived with her in Paris. She brought her Ukrainian clay dishes to Paris and served bor­shch to their French guests in them.

Ek­ster’s ties to the Soviet Union broke when the war broke out. She lived her last years alone at Fon­te­nay-aux-Roses in suburban Paris and died in 1949.


Ek­ster never had di­aries, wrote mem­o­ries or left let­ters be­hind. All her life can be traced through her work: she was al­ways in­volved in art or teach­ing. She never had doubts about her per­sonal mis­sion and no life sit­u­a­tion af­fected the qual­ity of her cre­ation. Ek­ster’s art does not re­flect her tur­bu­lent life. She seemed to find a shel­ter from the trou­bles of life in the sta­bil­ity of paint­ing. Her life re­flected a si­nu­soid: the pe­ri­ods of thriv­ing al­ter­nated with the stages of hard work that was hardly vis­i­ble to an out­sider.

Un­like other avant-garde artists, O lek san­dra did not strive for recog­ni­tion. All she cared about was to cre­ate the best and the most in­no­va­tive art. That’s why her name did not be­come widely known in her life­time. She did not want to be on top of all others. “Ek­ster coura­geously fol­lowed her fate be­cause she could not be­tray her na­ture,” He­orhiy Ko­valenko, a re­searcher of Ek­ster’s life, wrote.


In 2008, the Na­tional Art Museum held the first re tr ospe ct ex­hi­bi­tion of Ole ks an dra Ek­ster’s works in Ukraine. Over 50 works by Olek­san­dra dis­played at the Museum ac­com­pa­nied by the show of a col­lec­tion by Ukrainian fash­ion de­signer Lilia Pus­tovit based on Ek­ster’s art. Dur­ing her life­time, Ek­ster never had a per­sonal ex­hi­bi­tion in the Soviet Union, even though most other avant-garde artists were reg­u­larly on dis­play in Moscow, Len­ingrad and Kyiv. Sev­eral years ago, art ex­pert Te­tiana Kara-Va­sylieva or­ga­nized a re­con­struc­tion of em­broi­deries from the two vil­lage work­shops, in­clud­ing those cased on sketches made by Olek­san­dra. To­day, Avant-garde Em­broi­dery shows are reg­u­larly dis­played in Kyiv and else­where.

Elegance and tal­ent. Olek­san­dra Ek­ster in Kyiv, 1910

Mae­nad. A sketch of the cos­tume for the Famira Ki­fared drama by In­no­ken­tiy An­nen­sky. Cos­tume de­signer: Olek­san­dra Ek­ster. Di­rec­tor: Olek­sandr Tairov. Cham­ber The­atre, Moscow, 1916

The views of France. A Bridge. Sèvres by Olek­san­dra Ek­ster, 1914. Na­tional Museum of Art col­lec­tion

A Span­ish dance. Cos­tume sketch by Olek­san­dra Ek­ster. Bal­let mas­ter: Bro­nislava Niżyński. Bro­nislava Niżyński's School of Move­ment, Kyiv, 1918

Hid­den trea­sures. Three Fe­male Fig­ures by Olek­san­dra Ek­ster, 1909-1910. Na­tional Museum of Art col­lec­tion

A new scene. Like her con­tem­po­rary artists, in­clud­ing Male­vich and Pi­casso, Ek­ster was ea­ger to ex­per­i­ment with the­atre space

A fig­ure with a knife. Cos­tume sketch for the Romeo and Juliet show by Olek­san­dra Ek­ster. Di­rec­tor: Olek­sandr Tairov. Cham­ber The­atre, Moscow, 1921

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