Costume Design for Oscar Wilde’s Salome by Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Exster

Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Exster

Costume Design for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 1917, Pencil, tempera, gouache, whitening, silver, bronze and varnish on cardboard, 66.5 x 52.6 cm, A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow, КП 62579, © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow

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Kaleidoscopic Whirlwind

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As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, artistic interest in the figure of Salome reached new heights. An unusually large number of painters, sculptors, and writers turned towards the biblical dancer with renewed interest, and transformed the girl whom the Bible described as a mere instrument of Herodias’s wrath into an active agent of female desire, casting her as the prototype of the ‘femme fatale’.

Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, first performed in Paris in 1896, was one of the key works that established Salome’s fame as cultural icon of fin-de-siècle Europe. In Wilde’s drama, Herodias and her vengeance retreat to the background of the story, while Salome’s twisted desire for the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) comes to the fore. Aware of her own sensuality and sexual power, she is driven by her obsession to kiss the prophet, which in the end, will cause not only his, but also her own demise.

Wilde’s drama was particularly enthusiastically received in Russia, where his femme fatale underwent yet another transformation in the context of the emerging Soviet state. Here, she was re-interpreted as an androgynous and Amazon-like character, and transformed into an emblem not only for a new artistic avant-garde indebted to Futurism, Cubism, and Constructivism, but also for a new, energetic, and determined woman born out of the Revolution.

Aleksandra Ekster’s designs for Aleksandr Tairov’s 1917 production of Wilde’s Salome at the Kamerny Theatre in Moscow are perhaps the most radical embodiments of these ideas. In her costume design for Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, shown here, Ekster strips the dancer of all connotations of sensuality and eroticism. Instead, Salome’s passions and destructive desires are transformed into an energetic kaleidoscope of movement and colour, her body merging with the stage behind.



Misler, Nicoletta. 2011. ‘Seven Steps, Seven Veils: Salomé in Russia’, Experiment, 17: 155–84

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