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, 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.
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