At the end of 2003 Max Milo Éditions in Paris published the book ALEXANDRA EXTER,
subtitled A MONOGRAPH 1.
Its authors : Jean Chauvelin and Nadia Filatoff.
The publication also included two previously published articles :
“Alexandra Exter’s marionettes” by John E. Bowlt (published in 1975)
“Alexandra Exter in Kiev” by Dmytro Horbachov (1988).
This richly illustrated book sheds no new light on the artist’s work and little in the way of previously unpublished biographical or artistic information 2. On the other hand, it features a great number of previously unknown works incorporated amongst known and well recorded works belonging for the most part to duly inventoried public Russian and Western collections.
The demonstration starts on the cover of the book with an unknown abstract painting (ill. 115 inside the book, p. 132) bearing a signature that is also unknown to date.
It would be fastidious to provide a detailed commentary on every one of the “new works” put into circulation by this publication.
But a few comments are necessary from the outset :
With the exception of two theatrical works (small-scale gouaches on paper that are unsigned), all the “new” works, that were therefore previously unknown, carry the reference “private collection.” They are not historically documented in the artist’s lifetime or in that of the heir to her production, Simon Lissim (died in 1981), because none of these signed works come from the Lissim heritage, nor do they figure in the archives of the artist or her heir.
Aside from the apparent stylistically incoherent aspect of some of the works and the stylistic mistakes (see below), not to mention the manner of painting and the formal execution that differ surprisingly from the rigorous approach that characterizes Alexandra Exter’s work, the book features some previously unknown series in the artist’s output. These include, for example, a series of theatrical costume projects (for Romeo and Juliet, winter 1920-1921) in oil on canvas (to date, we have no knowledge of anything of this kind, and for good reason, since the use of oil painting conflicts with the destination of the work).
There are series of abstract compositions inspired by other known abstract compositions by Exter when she did not work in “series”.
“Variations” on Cubist, Futurist and abstract works, all of which are signed (whereas the original versions are rarely signed) and whose execution does not correspond to the artist’s manner.
Example of stylistic mistake :
Page 229 features a “study” for a well-known work by the artist – Construction 1923 (96 x 96 cm, in the MOMA collection in New York; the work was part of the Lissim heritage and comes directly from the artist’s studio). Other “variations” of this composition have surfaced since 2003. These works bear a signature that is incorrectly placed in relation to the composition – in other words, if the signature were correct, the composition would have to be turned incorrectly by 90°. This anomaly is easy enough to explain by the fact that the painting was hung incorrectly at the MOMA in the mid-nineteen eighties. This mistake wasn’t corrected until the end of 2008 (see the hanging and reproduction in the catalogue to the recent exposition “Rodchenko-Popova : Defining Constructivism”, at the Tate Modern in London, 2009, where a small section of Exter’s works has been included)[ ].
The proposed signatures :
A reference chart of signatures figures at the end of the volume – page 413 – with 5 signatures, and the following comment: “aside from rare exceptions, Alexandra Exter’s works are signed or monogrammed in Latin or Cyrillic letters” (Indeed! What would be the other likely possibilities ?).
Contrary to the rules of a professional work of documentation worthy of this name, the five signatures proposed here are not accompanied by any bibliographic or documented reference, no verifiable reference of any sort as to the source of the information, or even in relation to works from which they come other than the book where they figure (2003).
In conclusion :
There is no choice but to consider these signatures hypothetical and requiring verification, which was what we were obliged to do when examining some of the “new” works when they have been exhibited or put on sale. (Verifications and handwriting study practiced for the first time in Paris in early summer 2006).
The 2nd and 5th signature (from top to bottom on page 413) are “new”, meaning, unknown in the work of the artist before the date of this publication (2003). In addition, all of the works on which these signatures appear are referenced as being in “private collections”, known only to the authors of this publication, since they were never exhibited or published before.
A handwriting examination of signature 2 by Madame Petit de Mirbeck, handwriting expert at the Appellate Court in Paris concluded that it is a calligraphy and not properly speaking a signature 3.
Works published in the 2003 volume whose attribution is questionable :
Faced with the impossibility of examining all the new works published in this book, the comments here are limited to those with a univocal stylistic aspect and/or works that have been accessible in recent years (usually because they were on view for public auction).
The list below is a first draft for a complete listing to be drawn up in the future; it refers to illustrations in the 2003 publication, indicated by illustration number and page. The asterisk refers to works belonging to series that figure in the 2009 Tours exhibition :
12*/p.34 13*/p.35 14*/p. 36 15*/p.37 16*/p.38 19*/p .45 21*/p.48 22*/p.49 25*/p.53 26*/p.54 27*/p.54 41*/p.67 42*/p.68 48*/p.77 52*/p.79 54*/p.81 57*/p.84 71*/p.93
87*/p.107 88*/p.108 89*/p.109 90/p.110 96/p.116 109*/p.125 110*/p.126 111*/p.127 112*/p.128 113*/p.129 115*/p.132-3 121*/p.141
126*/p.147 129*/p.149 135*/p.154 142*/p.162 144*/p.166 145*/p.167 150*/p.174 151*/p.175 193/p.211 217*/p.229 221*/p.235 227/p.238 228/p.239 231/p.241 232/p.242 251/p.258
312/p.333 331/p.351 341/p.357 342/p.357 345/p.358 367/p.404 368/p.405
The illustrations 255*/pages 264-271 were on view at the 2009 Tours exhibition; the inscriptions were rejected by the handwriting study conducted in February 2009 in relationship with the Tours exhibition.
Illustration 267/p. 277 raises the question of a signature that seems to be traced over a pencil inscription. The question will remain open until the original can be examined.
Note : a number of these works, along with “versions” of, or “variations” on them, form large series that circulated in public auctions or in commercial galleries that are separately listed (see the sections : public sales and collections, and comments on the Tours exhibition, 2009).
Another publication that contains many works whose attribution is open to question is :
The reproductions included in this publication call for fundamental reservations for stylistic reasons but also and especially because of an imaginary provenance that discredits the attribution all the more. See “Imaginary Provenances” on this site.
Cf. The article by Geneviève Breerette in Le Monde, dated 5 December 2003.
Aside from several biographical mistakes, some essential elements in Alexandra Exter’s career are missing, such as her big Moscow show of over a hundred works that was regarded as her first individual retrospective, her stay in Odessa (which has been well studied), her personal show in England, among others.
A survey of other signatures will be provided shortly on this site.