The Late Still-Lifes of Robert Falk

Angelina Shchekin-Krotova

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

Now, I would like to say a few words about Falk’s still-life paintings. Falk was meticulous when it came to composition. Sometimes, he picked objects to create a certain colour combination that he had in mind; other times, his passion would be lit by a combination of objects spotted by chance, but, for the most part a still- life represented the implementation of a long-cherished image, an idea, and then something seen in real life would nudge him into finally creating the scene he envisaged.

ROBERT FALK. Still-Life with African Sculpture. 1944
ROBERT FALK. Still-Life with African Sculpture. 1944
Oil on canvas. 63,8 × 53,5 cm. © Tretyakov Gallery

“Still-Life with African Sculpture” (1944, Tretyakov Gallery). In 1944, Falk and I went to visit our friend Lydia Brodskaya.[1] Falk spotted an African sculpture in ebony on her shelf. He beseeched her, “let me have it, at least for a while. I must paint it." The African sculpture stood “unemployed" at our home for almost a year as Falk struggled to find it a “worthy" spot or suitable company. There was a shelf in the studio, a simple board nailed to the wall, where various “surviving" objects were kept, which might arouse an “appetite" for painting. But there was not a single item that would have served as an interesting conversant for the African. But then, we somehow “requisitioned" an old porcelain cup in a bright coral colour from the Selvinskys. Falk then picked up a red glass decanter from Elizaveta [Potekhina, Falk's first wife]. “Now they can have a conversation," said Falk. He placed all three in the shaded part of the room and, for a long time, almost a year, he painted the ominous “group of conspirators," thickly, densely achieving the “precious painting". It turned out a very significant piece, very similar in mood to “Red Furniture" (1920).

As always, Falk strove for his objects to speak to one other, to understand one other, but not as a literary notion or symbol. He grouped his objects according to the charge of energy in their colours; he created a “plastic event". In those years, the artists to whom Falk showed this still-life were frightened by it and advised him not to exhibit the work. “It's so dark, like a kind of curse, cabalic even." Such was the reaction to the painting at the time. After much hesitation, the Tretyakov Gallery decided to acquire “Still-Life with African Sculpture" (1944, Tretyakov Gallery)[2], which they did for a song, although the still-life did not enter the exhibition, of course.

“Dove and a Rose. (Requiem)" (1948-1950. Lidia Semenova Collection. Moscow). A few years later, in the 1950s, Falk had occasion to use the coral-coloured cup again and this time placed a paper rose inside, which he had taken as a keepsake from a wreath laid on Solomon Mikhoels's coffin. He wanted to add something blue. “Flowers, fabric perhaps?" I suggested. “No, no, no. it needs something shiny!" And then, one day when I was buying potatoes at Tishinsky market, I saw on one of the tables a group of handmade, glazed, clay toys, animals and birds. I bought a blue dove on a green stand. When I returned home and handed Falk the little dove, he cried, “That's exactly it! Give it here, quick!" The colour play was sharp, unexpected and there was something dramatic in the resonance between the pieces. And then, bending forward, he whispered, “This will be Mikhoels's requiem."

In the 1950s, Falk painted many bunches of flowers. Rather than arranging them in vases, he placed them in milk jugs and clay pots. He fell in love with an old, cracked, terracotta tureen. “Flowers in a Tureen" (1951, Abramtsevo Museum Reserve). I remember Falk buying the pink and red asters at the market. He put them on a nightstand he had covered with a sheet of green paper against the background of an old grey curtain.

“Look at the colour play - it's a Rokotov! Pink, green, grey!" That tureen appears in many of his still-life paintings with flowers.

I would arrange the flowers. Falk took a long time meticulously evaluating my work before he would “accept" it. He would make me re-do it several times until the bunch looked natural and unpretentious as if they had randomly fallen that way. When he wanted to praise me, he said that I chose the flowers just as well as a French concierge (he very much appreciated the inherent taste of the ordinary Parisian).

Falk loved wildflowers most of all. “These are a ‘fistful' of landscape," he explained. Perhaps in his mind, flowers really did replace landscapes. Poor health and old age had made it so much more difficult to wander around in search of fresh motifs ... And yet, Falk worked tirelessly from morn till night. I loved watching his face when he was painting flowers: it was transformed, calm and bright. “Ficus" (1956, Tretyakov Gallery). In the summer of 1956, we lived for a while in the village of Arkhanovo near Abramtsevo. It was an unusually wet summer that year, which made it impossible to paint outdoors. So, from the window of the hut, Falk began to paint the village street that disappeared into the fog through a grid of drizzling rain. He placed a tub containing a ficus on the floor to his left; its dense, heavy leaves created a kind of heavy frame or backstage for the flimsy, transparent landscape. He needed something that would create a transition from the foreground to the landscape. Falk asked me to put some cornflowers in a glass on the windowsill. In the nearby fields, there was not a cornflower to be found, so I picked some large forget- me-nots in the ravine near the spring. Falk was terribly disappointed. He had dreamed of cornflowers specifically. In the end, I had to go to the fields much further away and there picked blue-blue cornflowers. The next day, rather embarrassed, Falk said, “Would you like to put some more forget-me-nots on the windowsill?" Over the next month, I made sure there was always a fresh bunch of forget-me-nots in the glass and yet the dream of cornflowers still seemed to shine through the blue. It makes no difference to us what flowers they were. The important thing is that they shine in a precious alloy of light and dark blue, creating a sonorous spot that enlivens the painting's otherwise pastel hues.

Preparation of text, publication and comments by Yulia Didenko

 

  1. Brodskaya, L. (nee Segal, 1892-1977), artist, translator, daughter of St.Petersburg-based architect Segal, M.
  2. Painting acquired in 1975 from Schekin-Krotova, A.

Illustrations

ROBERT FALK. Dove and a Rose. (Requiem). 1948–1950
ROBERT FALK. Dove and a Rose. (Requiem). 1948-1950
Oil on canvas. 47 × 60 cm
Lidia Semyonova Collection, Moscow
ROBERT FALK. Flowers in a Tureen. 1951
ROBERT FALK. Flowers in a Tureen. 1951
Oil on canvas. 60 × 73 cm
© Abramtsevo Museum Reserve
ROBERT FALK. Ficus. 1956
ROBERT FALK. Ficus. 1956
Oil on canvas. 85 × 64 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery

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