In the late 1910s Exter’s Kiev studio had been the centre of a flourishing avant-garde community and in Moscow she had been one of the pioneers of Constructivism, participating in the legendary 5x5 exhibition. The reception of her work and her experiences at the Venice Biennale in 1924 however had made it clear to her that Europe was wary of the politics of pure abstraction and following Cubism, European artists had reverted to a more conservative figurativism. The aftershocks of war and revolution had had very different effects on the art of Russia and Europe, the ‘return to order’ that characterised the art of post-war Europe was in stark contrast to the iconoclasm of the new generation of leftist artists in post-Revolutionary Russia. It was clear that her recent work on Colour Dynamics and Colour Constructions would not meet with commercial success and Exter once again turned to the theatre.
She arrived in Paris on 30 December 1924, the year her old friends Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant established their free school, L’Académie Moderne which followed the grammar of Purism, and Exter was immediately invited to join the teaching department. There, she taught courses in composition, colour theory and most importantly, theatre design, in which Greek tragedy played a pivotal role. Her former pupil Esther Shimerova recalled ‘Everything began with literature. Exter required us to know the ancient classics, to have a persistent, literally daily intercourse with them. We had to know Horace’s Odes almost by heart, and in the original. To feel their rhythm and construction, the weight of his word and, so to say, the color, motion, mass.’
Although known in the West first and foremost as a theatre artist, Exter never considered her work for the stage as separate and distinct from her easel painting. After the Biennale she would only exhibit her paintings one more occasion, in Paris in 1915. The theatre was a constant source of refuge and in the lean years of the 1930s away from the hubbub of Paris, she ‘found solace in the theatre, creating designs and set s for plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, though without any specific commission or production in mind.’ (G.Kovalenko, ‘Alexandra Exter’, Amazons of the Avant-Garde, p.138).
The simplified geometrical forms of Orpheus and Eurydice are obviously entirely in keeping with the Purist aesthetic of the time, but Exter’s interest in Greek theatre and the psychology of Classical drama predates her association with the movement. Exter, whose mother was in fact Greek, was first approached by Alexander Tamirov to design a production of Annensky’s play Famira Kifared in Moscow in 1916. The play tells the tale of the Thracian bard Thamyrisis who is so proud of his talent for playing the lyre that he dares to challenge the muses to a competition, when he inevitably loses, the muses take away his lyre and blind him as punishment. Orpheus was the other great Thracian lyre player; the motifs of both the lyre and the muses are recurrent in Exter’s work and this story obviously resonated deeply with her.