The works in the collection come from the descendants of Ihnno Ezratty a business man who was a close friend of the artist from her Paris years and legal executor of her estate. Ezratty had taken painting lessons from Exter in 1929-1930 around the time that, for reasons of economy, the artist and her husband left Paris for a small house in the suburbs out at Fontenay-aux-Roses. The two maintained a close friendship and during the Second World War Exter hid Ezratty, a Sephardic Jew, from the occupying German forces during the mass arrest of Jews in France in 1942. The war years were difficult for Exter too, she suffered much from ill health, isolation, and poverty and her husband died in 1945. To help her back on her feet and in gratitude for all she had done for him, Ezratty begun buying her paintings and found her a studio enabling her to resume painting and earn a living again by accepting commissions. On her death Exter bequeathed to him a number of artworks and as executor he was charged with organising for the remainder to be sent to Simon Lissim, her old friend and former pupil from Kiev.
Ezratty had always had a keen eye for design. His smart Paris boutique supplied fabrics to the leading couturiers of the day, including Christian Dior and he cut a dash driving through the streets of Paris in his Delahaye convertible. He designed the interior of his immaculate apartment in the rue Médéric around the pieces in this collection, including much of the furniture and a James Bond-style bar disguised in a wall.
With works in oil and on paper including examples of theatre and book design this collection showcases the scope of Exter’s talent and the sheer variety of the work she was producing in Paris in the 1930s.
Between 1912 and 1914 Exter shared a studio in Paris with the Italian Futurist Ardengo Soffici. She was not only the main conduit for the transfer of artistic ideas and theories between East and West, but of all Russian artists she was the most closely affiliated with the Italian Futurist movement. Soffici and Exter became lovers, visiting Italy a number of times in the early 1910s and she was one of only four Russian artists to take part in the Free International Futurist Exhibition in Rome in 1914. Exter painted views of Florence, Genoa and Rome, but ‘most insistent and frequent were images of Venice. The city emerged in various forms: via the outlines of its buildings, in the ‘witchcraft of water’. In glimmering echoes of Renaissance painting, in costumes and masks and its carnivals’ (G.Kovalenko, Alexandra Exter, 2010, p.105).
The two lovers were separated by the outbreak of War and Exter’s ties with Europe were all but severed during the years 1914 until 1924, when she was invited to represent the Soviet Union at the 14th Biennale in Venice, the first time the country had participated since the Revolution. During this period of exile she threw herself into work for the theatre and embarked upon a fruitful partnership with Kamerny Theatre director Alexander Tairov whose revolutionary direction was was a perfect match for her visionary designs. In the Venice paintings in this collection bridges are used as proscenium arches, the architecture creates a stage-like space in which to arrange her cast. Exter’s characteristic use of the bridge as a stage platform, seen most clearly in Carnival in Venice (lot 66), is a legacy of her time as Tairov’s chief designer; the director believed in breaking up the flatness of the stage floor which the artist achieved for him by introducing arches, steps and mirrors. Even in her easel work, the emphasis is at all times on theatricality.
Even during her years in Kiev, the influence of Venice reveals itself in the colours and shapes of the Harlequin’s costume transformed into kaleidoscopic Colour Constructions and Colour Rhythms. One of the first canvases she painted following her emigration to Paris was Venice (fig.1), which sold in these rooms in 2009 and to this day holds the record for the artist at auction. The specific theme of the Commedia dell’Arte first appears in 1926 when the Danish film director Urban Gad approached her to design the sets and marionettes for a film which was to tell the story of Punch and Colombine, transposing them from the Venice of Carlo Goldoni to contemporary New York. The film was never realised but Exter created 40 marionettes, exhibited the following year at Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, as well as numerous stage designs and paintings on the theme.
For all her modernity, references to Venetian art of the past abound in these three paintings. The masked figures are influenced by the Venetian artist Pietro Longhi, to whom Exter dedicated a series of works around this time. The incredible blues used in both Carnival Procession (lot 68) and Masked Figures by the Banks of a Venetian Canal (lot 67) are a direct reference to Titian, who was famed for his use of ultramarine, the pigment most associated with Venice’s history as the principal trading port with the East.