Two women, separated by a red piano, inhabit Alexandra Exter’s The music lesson. One, dressed in white, is seated on the right and plays the piano. The role of the other, on the left, is more ambiguous: her mouth is open, so is she the teacher speaking or the student singing? Is she seated or standing? She seems taller, with more conservative clothing and is perhaps older; her hair is in a bun, unlike the pianist’s red hair styled in a modern bob.
Brilliant in colour and complex in composition, The music lesson combines a decorative sensibility with a lively investigation of space. The artist draws on her mentor Fernand Léger’s ideas about primary colours and the division of planes and demonstrates confident handling of late Cubist and Orphist principles in painting. Strong diagonals and vertical bars animate an imaginary room or studio, with musical notes possibly producing the colours and forms. This agrees with the contemporary theory of synaesthesia, where different sounds evoke particular colours, as can numbers, tastes and even days of the week.
Exter had vital roles as an innovator, a teacher and a theatrical designer. Trained in Kiev and Paris, she became known to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque from her Paris studio in 1909. Until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Exter travelled extensively in Western Europe, spreading knowledge of the French avant‑garde to her Russian friends. The Russian Revolution began in 1917 as an idealist adventure, especially in the arts. But the dream soured, and Exter returned to Paris via Italy in the mid 1920s. She exhibited with the Italian Futurists and was a friend of Filippo Marinetti’s. She taught in Léger’s art school in the 1920s and 1930s.
The music lesson was painted in the climate of the Art Deco exposition of 1925, after Exter re‑established herself in Paris, or even while she stayed briefly in Italy. The painting, with its shards of colour repeating across the canvas, shows the figurative tendency of the Salon Cubist generation, which strongly influenced Australian modernism between the wars.
Christine Dixon Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 72, Summer 2012/13