"Hit by an Avalanche of Art". MEETINGS WITH ROBERT FALK

Elizaveta Zeldovich-Galperina

Article: 
ROBERT FALK (1886 - 1958)
Magazine issue: 
#4 2020 (69)

The artist Elizaveta Zeldovich’s (married name Galperina, 1902-1985) memories of Falk are published here for the first time. This material belongs to that special genre of “oral history”. The excerpt from the conversation with Zeldovich-Galperina presented to the reader here was originally recorded using a tape recorder on March 5, 1981, by the legendary philologist Viktor Duvakin.[1] Duvakin gathered a unique collection of oral memoirs on the history of Russian culture in the first half of the 20th century, which became the foundation for the oral history department of the Academic Library at Moscow State University.[2] Duvakin approached the artist upon the advice of her friend at the gymnasium, Elena Konstantinovna Osmerkina (nee Galperina, first wife of the artist Osmerkin), with whom Duvakin had spoken in 1980.

Elizaveta Zeldovich-Galperina. 1920
Elizaveta Zeldovich-Galperina. 1920
Photograph (detail). Private archive, Moscow. First publication

In the post-revolutionary years and in the early 1920s, Elizaveta Naumovna,[3] daughter of the publisher Naum Zeldovich, was educated at the best Moscow art schools and became a student of the major masters of the Russian avant-garde: Aleksandr Shevchenko (at the first Free State Art Studios, 1919-1920) and Lyubov Popova (at VKHUTEMAS, 1920-1921). In addition, in 1919, while still studying at the Free State Art Studios, she entered the first Moscow State University faculty of history and history of art and, in 1922-1924, she studied at the metalworking department at VKHUTEMAS. In the 1930s, she worked as a set designer for the theatre and exhibitions, while also teaching drawing; in the 1950s, she took part in the design of the pavilions of the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (now VDNKH) and the VI World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. According to Olga Velchinskaya, author of memories of the artist, “Elizaveta Naumovna belonged to the countless number whose destinies, ‘like a river, were reversed by the cruel age’.[4] One can only marvel at those individuals, whose strength of spirit, elevated thoughts and modest dignity enabled them to survive the merciless century in which they lived. The profes-sional life of Elizaveta Naumovna might otherwise have turned out differently. Perhaps she would have become a theatre artist, but it so happened that she took up applied art, including industrial graphics (working enthusiastically and productively, largely due to her training at VKHUTEMAS)”.[5]

Zeldovich-Galperina shares her impressions of a viewing of Falk’s works at his studio and of her visit in 1939 to the artist’s solo exhibition at the Moscow Central House of Artists. She also recalls the discussion at the exhibition and a memorable speech made in defence of Falk by his friend, the pilot Andrei Yumashev. Zeldovich-Galperina’s shares a significant story and otherwise little-known fact of Falk’s biography, the conflict that began in his student years between the artist and the future pillar of socialist realism and Stalin’s favourite portrait painter A.M. Gerasimov,[6] who became the key organiser of Falk’s persecution in the postwar years.

Ilya Ehrenburg also recalls the unsavoury role of Gerasimov in the artist’s life in “People, Years, Life”. “In 1946 or 1947, Falk was denounced as a ‘formalist’. This was absurd, but in those years, nothing would have surprised us. They decided to bring the ‘formalist’ to his knees. I remember the statement of one of the leaders of the Union of Artists at that time: ‘Falk does not understand words, so we will beat him with the rouble.’ It amazed me even then: that the ‘rouble’ man did not realise who he was dealing with. Never in my life have I met an artist more indifferent to material comforts and wealth. Falk cooked peas or potatoes himself; he wore the same worn jacket for years; he wore one shirt - the other lay in an old suitcase. He felt uncomfortable in an ordinary, decently furnished room. He lived in a state of desolation, valuing only his paints and brushes. They stopped exhibiting his work. He had no money. As far as they were concerned, Falk was buried alive, but he carried on working. Sometimes, art lovers and young artists would visit his studio. He welcomed everyone and introduced his work, smiling shyly.”[7] “A hermit in painting, he was sociable in life and met with many people listening attentively to debates, stories, confessions...”[8]

The recording of this conversation is held at the Department of Oral History in the Academic Library at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. The transcript was kindly entrusted to us for exclusive publication in the pages of this journal by the department head, Dmitry Sporov, to whom we express our sincere gratitude. The fragment of the conversation published here is presented in the form of a monologue in edited format and with minor abbreviations.

Yulia Didenko

 

  1. Duvakin V.D. (19091982), literary critic, specialist in the work of V.V. Mayakovsky; Candidate of Philology, Associate Professor of the Faculty of Philology, IFLI-Moscow State University (1939-1966).
  2. See: recordings of conversations online: http://oralhistory.ru/members/duvakin
  3. Cousin to well-known physicist and participant of the USSR Atomic Project Ya. B. Zeldovich.
  4. Quotation from the “Third Northern Elegy” by A.A. Akhmatova (1945).
  5. Unpublished excerpt from a biographical note about E.N. Zeldovich-Galperina, compiled by O.A. Velchinskaya.
  6. Aleksander Mikhailovich Gerasimov (1881-1963), artist, chairman of the board of the Moscow Union of Artists of the USSR (1937-1939), chairman of the organising committee of the Union of Artists of the USSR (1939-1954), first president of the USSR Academy of Arts (1947-1957).
  7. I.G. Ehrenburg “People, Years, Life: Book Three and Four”. Moscow., 1963. Pp. 487-488.
  8. (Ibid.) Pp.484-485.

In 1937, Robert Falk returned from Paris, where he had spent several years with permission from Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky.[1] In Paris, Falk was extremely prolific and enjoyed success as an artist and still, within the milieu of Parisian art, he stood out to the extent that he was just a good Russian artist. In his 1971 novel “Before the Mirror,” Veniamin Kaverin creates a highly authentic portrayal of Falk in the artist character Korn.[2]

ROBERT FALK. Night in Paris. 1930s
ROBERT FALK. Night in Paris. 1930s
Gouache, watercolour, ink, pen on paper. 41.5 × 33 cm
Private collection, Moscow. First publication

Falk returned to the Soviet Union at his son’s insistence[3]. The boy missed his homeland and wanted his father to return to Russia. Later, in the early war years, I heard that his son had died at the front.

Falk’s exhibition was located on Pushechnaya Street[4] and took up every available space. The corridors, the stairwell - Falk’s paintings were everywhere. The exhibition included his oils, tempera and his wonderful gouache pieces. There were his portraits, still-lifes and landscapes with a special focus on his Parisian gouaches and landscapes. It all made a tremendous impression on the Moscow artists who visited the exhibition (the general public did not appreciate the exhibition then in the same way as it would now).

I want to share my memories of a discussion that took place at the exhibition.[5] Many individuals spoke at the event: artists, art critics (who were fewer in number then), but the person who made the [strongest] impression on everyone was Andrei Borisovich Yumashev, Hero of the Soviet Union, who had recently returned with aviator Mikhail Gromov after his flight across America. Yumashev gave a speech6 (he was himself an artist) and addressed the audience with such passion, with such fire, going so far as to suggest that a school should be founded in Falk’s name and, at the very least, the first thing that Falk should do next was to become involved in educating other artists because his artistry was of such a high standard that he must, naturally, lead some special studio or course for students.

The piece I especially remember (I was quite overwhelmed by the whole exhibition and visited several times) was a small stem of jasmine, standing in a simple faceted glass of water. It was just a simple sketch, completely naturalistic, barely interpreted in any way and, at the same time, it seemed to exude a jasmine fragrance. There is no other way to say it: the sketch smelt of jasmine.

There was also a memorable portrait of a young Parisian woman, very much of that time, with a pale face and eyes black as velvet, wearing a blue-green cap.[7] Later, Falk told me that he had spotted this young woman in a cafe, approached her and asked permission to paint her portrait. Falk was quite the ladies' man and evidently knew how to approach a woman. “And then," he said, “later, she asked me, ‘What was it that made you approach me in the cafe?’ And, he continued, ‘like a fool, I could not think of anything else to say except ‘it was the colour of your hat ’".

The exhibition came to an end as did the holiday. Falk returned to his everyday life, and that’s when it all began... Let’s not forget that this was 1939 and Falk had just spent several years abroad. None of his connections in the world of art came to anything. He was not invited to teach anywhere, he did not receive any commissions and no-one would buy his paintings. He spent the majority of his time at home painting in his studio at the Pertsov House.

Then, the war started and, like a number of other artists, Falk was evacuated to Samarkand. There, he painted a series of wonderful paintings, landscapes mostly. I do not remember him pro-ducing any portraits during that time.

Later, after the war, I was at Falk’s studio with a non-artist friend, who knew Falk through Aleksandra Granovskaya,[8] the sister of one of his ex-wives, Raisa9, with whom he always maintained a warm friendship. My friend and I were the only guests on that day. Falk was kind and welcoming and began to show us his paintings. And as is sometimes the case with artists, singers, and musicians, on a wave of enthusiasm, he started to show us everything. It is a kind of personal test for the artist. As I understand it, this was not about the visitor, so much as the opportunity for the artist to see themselves from a different perspective. The studio was filled with stacks of canvases and endless folders of drawings and Falk began to pull out all his wealth. I was totally amazed.

I would like to share the story of one still life in particular, that I shall remember for the rest of my life.[10] The arrangement involved a rather dirty basket, an old one made of bast, into which a few potatoes had been poured and others scattered about — ordinary grey, unwashed potatoes. And this was all set against a grey sackcloth, a rag on which the potatoes lay. Nothing was depicted aside from the grey and yellow-grey hues of the basket, and yet the painting shone with the gleam of precious stones. You could have sprinkled them with ash and they would still have shone. I remember my words to Falk: “Robert Rafailovich, I am so pleased that I was once a painter (by this time I was working as a graphic artist) otherwise I would never have been able to perceive or fully appreciate the true beauty of this piece. It is extraordinary." Falk smiled modestly and answered (I remember this very clearly, too), “You say such lovely things."

I recall another still life with a black Egyptian statuette and a sort of red vase,[11] a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels,[12] a portrait of the same Parisian woman[13] (he told me the story of this work, also), and a whole series of other pieces. It made an unforgettable impression on me, like I had been hit by an entire avalanche of art.

When Falk showed us his Parisian gouaches and watercolours (mostly gouaches), it was as if the very air of Paris was present. These paintings were not made in the style of naturalism; they were more like sketches really, but this was precisely the manner in which a modern artist could express their impressions of a city, nature or indeed anything.

At the end of our conversation, completely overwhelmed by all we had seen, I asked, “Robert Rafailovich, how is it possible that a master such as yourself can be sitting here without work, not receiving commissions or holding exhibitions? What can be done about it?" Falk answered me, “Nothing can be done." I said, “But what about Yumashev, he’s a great fan of yours?" Falk replied, “What about Yumashev? He comes to see me, looks at my work and admires it as he says. The Kukryniksys come to the studio, sometimes all three of them together, sometimes separately; lots of artists come here, and still, nothing can be done because ... I did not get along with Aleksander Mikhailovich Gerasimov back in our student years."[14]

At this time, Aleksander Gerasimov was head of the Union of Artists and was generally in charge of all things relating to the art world. I was aware of this prior to the conversation with Falk and so I quite understood the context of what he said next. I heard about it quite by chance because my husband was from the same city as Aleksander Gerasimov, the city of Kozlov, now Michurinsk.[15] My husband was always mocking me, saying, “I hope you artists know who’s in charge of you all? You come under the management of the Union of the Archangel Michael".[16] The fact is that the Gerasimov family were wealthy merchants who traded in cattle. All were members of the Union of the Archangel Michael, that is, the most right-wing, most predominantly Black-Hundred party in Russia at the time. When Gerasimov arrived in Moscow, he entered the School of Painting (in all fairness, it has to be said that he was immensely talented). He was there at the same time as Falk and a number of other artists. Whether they were peers, I do not know, who among them was a little older, who a little younger (I think Aleksander Mikhailovich may have been a little older) it does not matter; they were, as they say, old boys of the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture[17]. Gerasimov was completely unrestrained in his show of extreme anti-Semitism. Falk was outraged by it and called the students to boycott him. And it was not just the Jewish students who joined the boycott, but the Russian students too. And it was an impressive boycott. “And so," Falk told me, “Aleksander remembers me and won’t forget. When someone recommended once that they offer me some position, he said, ‘if Falk wants to get a job working as a watchman at a crematorium, we will hinder him in this also." He said, “So how can there be any talk of exhibitions and the like?"

Falk’s lifestyle was modest to the extreme. His wife worked[18], giving language lessons, I think, and then, a few pieces were sold, but very occasionally and for very little, and very modestly. They managed to scratch together an existence, but they were just surviving.

Nonetheless, water gradually wears away the stone and “manuscripts don’t burn," as Bulgakov said. Bit by bit, Falk’s underground fame grew. As times quietly and slowly changed, although Falk may not have been entirely rehabilitated in his Westernism, he became accepted. In 1962, the Moscow Union of Artists[19] held an exhibition marking the organisation’s 30th anniversary, and a few of Falk’s works were included. When Falk was seriously ill in hospital, prior to his death, an exhibition of his work was organised on Zholtovsky Street[20] in the premises of the Moscow Union of Artists. The room was small, and accommodated only a portion of his work, but it was an exhibition nonetheless, and Falk knew about it. Someone told me that once he was even allowed to attend.[21] They helped him to select the pieces for the exhibition ... even Gabrichevsky, with whom he was very friendly. Once again, the exhibition was aimed at artists. Very few members of the general public attended.

Later, when they held the posthumous exhibition[22] on Begovaya, in the halls of the Moscow Union of Artists, many more of Falk’s works were presented and this time in the appropriate manner. People queued for entry this time, or at least, I remember there being a queue for the official opening of the exhibition. The artists walked in freely as normal, but there was a huge queue stretching out from the main doors. As part of the exhibition, a round-table discussion was held, attended by artists and art critics.

Falk's work is now appreciated on an international level; his paintings are sought out and purchased in the West, a fact confirmed by the recent theft of some of his paintings.[23] Fortunately, the paintings were found afterwards. “Self-portrait in Red Fez"[24] was found and immediately returned to Aleksandra Granovskaya's nephew,[25] who inherited the paintings. Anything that was not sold has since been bequeathed. I do not know how Angelina managed her inheritance. She still has many of Falk’s personal belongings, but whatever Aleksandra had will be relinquished to her heir when the court case ends.

The conversation was moderated by Victor Duvakin; recording, transcription, typesetting and review against the phonodocument by Marina Radzishevskaya; рreparation of the text, publication and comments by Yulia Didenko

 

  1. Falk left the country on an official trip representing the People’s Commissariat for Education in June 1928 and returned to the USSR at the end of December 1937, just at the turn into 1938.
  2. Falk appears in the novel as the artist Korn. Kaverin writes the following in a letter to Falk’s widow Angelina Shchekin-Krotova, “Of course, the whole novel is saturated with his work, which I love so much. Everything that concerns the artistic outlook of my Liza is written under the sign of F [alk] (italics mine. - Yu.D.). I diligently guided her from the Peredvizhniki (Itinerants), through the Mir Isk- usstva group - through the parallels of which you write. Venice - Italy, Corsica - Brittany - to a certain semblance of the image of F [alk] in art. And now, a word on authenticity. Obviously, Korn is F[alk] (italics mine. Yu.D.)” (Cit: Letter from Kaverin addressed to Angelina Shchekin-Krotova. February 1, 1972. // Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 3018. Opus 2. Item. 274. Sheet. 1-2).
  3. Falk, Valery Romanovich (1916-1943), son of Robert Falk and his first wife, artist Elizaveta Potekhina. Died in a field hospital on March 1, 1943, from unhealed wounds.
  4. The author is referring to a solo exhibition of Falk’s work which was held October 12 - November 28, 1939, at the Central House of Artists, 9, Pushechnaya Street. The exhibition served as a kind of artist’s report after an official trip abroad lasting many years, as well as two years of creative work in the USSR since his return from Paris (1938-1939). The exhibition included roughly 170 pieces (paintings and graphic works).
  5. The author is referring to a creative evening held by Robert Falk at the Central House of Artists on November 27, 1939, which was dedicated to that same exhibition. See: Transcript of the discussion of the exhibition of works by Robert Falk at the Central House of Artists. Includes addresses by M.V. Alpatov, S.M. Mikhoels, A.M. Nuren- berg, P.D. Pokarzhevsky, S.A. Chuikov and others. (Russian Archive for Literature and Art. Fund. 3018. Opus. 2. Item 111).
  6. See in this publication Andrei Yumashev’s address in the article by Yulia Didenko “Robert Falk’s solo exhibitions. An overview of 19241969”, p. 196.
  7. Referring to the painting “Lady in a Hat (Portrait of Maria Petrovna Perevosh- chikova)” (1935) Oil on canvas. Penza Savitsky Regional Art Gallery.
  8. Azarkh-Granovskaya (nee Idelson, 1892-1980), actress, wife of theatre director A.M. Granovsky, sister of artist R.V. Idelson (student and third wife of Robert Rafailovich Falk). See ed.: Azarkh-Granovskaya A.V. “Memories. Conversations with V.D. Duvakin”. Moscow, 2001.
  9. R.V. Idelson (1894-1972), artist, poet, student and third wife of Robert Falk (1922-1929).
  10. This refers to the painting “Potatoes” (1955, oil on canvas. Igor Sanovich collection, Moscow).
  11. This refers to the painting “Still-life with African Sculpture” (1944, oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery.
  12. This refers to the painting “Portrait of S.M. Mikhoels” (1947-1948, oil on canvas. Valentin Shuster Collection, St. Petersburg).
  13. This refers to the painting “Lady in a Hat (Portrait of Maria Petrovna Perevosh- chikova)”(1935, oil on canvas. Savitsky Penza Regional Art Gallery).
  14. Falk studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1905 to 1910; Alek- sander Gerasimov studied there from 1903 to 1912.
  15. A city located in the Tambov region.
  16. This refers to the Russian People’s Union named after Archangel Michael - a monarchist ultranationalist movement (the Black Hundred) that operated in the Russian Empire during the period 1907-1917.
  17. Gerasimov was five years older than Robert Falk.
  18. Here the author is referring to the artist’s (fourth) wife, Angelina Vasilievna Shchekin-Krotova (19101992). She taught German at the Moscow Automotive Institute (MAMI).
  19. This refers to a large-scale exhibition dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Moscow branch of the Union of Artists of the USSR. The exhibition was held at the ‘Manezh’ Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow from November 9, 1962, to January, 1963. Seven paintings by Falk were exhibited and hung on a separate wall: “Nude in an Armchair” (1922), “Seine. Paris” (1936), “Breton Fisherman” (1935), “Portrait of Ksenia Nekrasova” (1950), “In a Pink Shawl. (A.V. Shchekin-Kroto- va)” (1953), “Potatoes” (1955), “Self-Portrait in a Red Fez” (1957).
  20. Now Ermolaevsky Pereulok. The exhibition took place in May 1958.
  21. That Falk was able to see his last exhibition is due solely to his wife Angelina Shchek- in-Krotova, who brought him there for a few hours (having gained official permission from the hospital where he was being treated at the time).
  22. The exhibition of works by Robert Falk was held at the exhibition halls of the Moscow Union of Artists on Be- govaya Street in October-No- vember 1966. See details in this publication in the article by Yulia Didenko “Robert Falk’s solo exhibitions. An overview of 1924-1969”.
  23. This refers to the theft of paintings by Robert Falk from the apartment of Aleksandra Azarkh-Grano- vskaya, 21 Myasnitskaya Street, which took place on October 20, 1980. According to Azarkh-Granovskaya’s nephew, Y.A. Labas, the crooks entered the apartment pretending to be repairmen from the housing office, while the bedridden owner was in the house. They “cut the telephone wire and cut the canvases of Falk and Pen from their frames. The identity of the individual who tipped them off remains unknown.” Despite the fact that the robbers were arrested and the paintings retrieved after a neighbour telephoned the police, 88-year-old Aleksandra Veniaminovna’s (1892-1980) health suffered as a result of the traumatic event. She died on November 6 that same year, a week before the return of several of the missing paintings.
  24. Robert Falk, “Self-portrait in Red Fez” (1936). Paris. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Moscow.
  25. Yuli Aleksandrovich Labas (1933-2008), biologist, memoirist, son of artists A.A. Labas and R.V. Idelson.

Illustrations

Robert Falk at the exhibition of his paintings at Sviatoslav Richterʼs apartment. 1957
Robert Falk at the exhibition of his paintings at Sviatoslav Richterʼs apartment. 1957
Photograph: Jerzy Kucharski. Archive of Jerzy Kucharski, Moscow
Andrei Yumashev during the war years (deputy commander of the 3rd Air Army). 1942
Andrei Yumashev during the war years (deputy commander of the 3rd Air Army). 1942. Photograph
ROBERT FALK. In the Café. Paris. 1937
ROBERT FALK. In the Café. Paris. 1937
Watercolour, lead pencil on paper. 34 × 34 cm
Private collection, Moscow. First publication
ROBERT FALK. A Street in Samarkand with Bibi-Khanym in the Background. 1943
ROBERT FALK. A Street in Samarkand with Bibi-Khanym in the Background. 1943
Whitewash, watercolour on Japanese paper. 44 × 52 cm
© Russian Museum
ROBERT FALK. Leningrad. The Neva River. 1939
ROBERT FALK. Leningrad. The Neva River. 1939
Watercolour, white gouache, lead pencil on paper. 45 × 65 cm
Private collection, Moscow
ROBERT FALK. Under the Plane Trees. Samarkand
ROBERT FALK. Under the Plane Trees. Samarkand
Whitewash, watercolour on Japanese paper. 49.3 × 39.7 cm
© Russian Museum
ROBERT FALK. Window. Moldavia. 1951
ROBERT FALK. Window. Moldavia. 1951
Oil on canvas. 65 × 81 cm
Private collection, Moscow
ROBERT FALK. Lady in a Hat. (Portrait of Maria Petrovna Perevoshchikova). 1935
ROBERT FALK. Lady in a Hat. (Portrait of Maria Petrovna Perevoshchikova). 1935
Oil on canvas. 80 × 63.5 cm
© Penza Savitsky Regional Art Gallery
ROBERT FALK. A Road in the Field. 1936
ROBERT FALK. A Road in the Field. 1936
Oil on canvas. 60 × 80 cm
Vladimir Nekrasov Collection. Moscow
ROBERT FALK. Jasmine in a Glass Jar. 1940s
ROBERT FALK. Jasmine in a Glass Jar. 1940s
Watercolour, gouache, whitewash, ink and stick on paper. 62.4 × 53.3 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
ROBERT FALK. Cyclist at a Bar. 1930s
ROBERT FALK. Cyclist at a Bar. 1930s
Tempera, white gouache on cardboard. 43 × 55.8 cm
Private collection, Moscow
ROBERT FALK. A Paris Street. 1930s
ROBERT FALK. A Paris Street. 1930s
Watercolour, white gouache on paper. 37.8 × 49 cm
Private collection, Moscow. First publication
ROBERT FALK. Spring in Paris. Plane Trees on the Embankment. 1930s
ROBERT FALK. Spring in Paris. Plane Trees on the Embankment. 1930s
Oil on canvas. 80 × 62 cm
Private collection, Moscow
ROBERT FALK. A Shaded Café in Paris. 1930s
ROBERT FALK. A Shaded Café in Paris. 1930s
Watercolour and gouache on paper. 47 × 63 cm
Private collection, Paris. First publication
ROBERT FALK. White Hedge-Rose in the Pot. 1952
ROBERT FALK. White Hedge-Rose in the Pot. 1952
Watercolour, white gouache on paper. 46 × 58.5 cm
Private collection, USA

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