Robert Falk. "Meet My Kind of People"
FRAGMENTS FROM THE MEMOIRS “LYRICAL COMMENTARIES ON THE EXHIBITION OF ROBERT FALK”
Falk did not like to refer to the genre in which he worked with greatest enthusiasm as portrait painting. For him, the words rang with a note of something overly formal and representative. “I like to paint people,” he said and, showing his friends his paintings at the studio, he added, “Meet my kind of people.”
Falk’s people were from all walks of life, but there was not a single person among them whose portrait he had painted solely to commission, rather it was in response to the call of the heart. Others attracted him with their outward appearance and characteristic image. He loved to paint the elderly, who had been worked with the merciless chisel of a long and difficult life. He was also very fond of painting young women’s faces that were delicate as flowers. In Falk’s portraits of women, there is always the sense of an alluring secret. <...>
In his male models, he was most often attracted by intelligence and strength of personality. It should be said that Falk was far less interested in a person’s external appearance than he was their inner world. Usually, the desire to draw and paint arose from the sharing of common interests, an exchange of thought and intimate conversation.
I want to tell you about “Mulatto Girl Amra’’ (1918) from the Russian Museum collection. Unusually in this case, the model approached the artist herself. This is how Falk described his first meeting with AmraI: one afternoon, someone knocked quietly at the workshop door. He opened it... and there before him stood a quite unexpected sight: a delicate, graceful girl with swarthy, almost dark-brown skin, who asked in a surprisingly melodic, silvery voice with a bell-like ring, “Does the artist Trebor Klaf live here?" Falk recalled instantly that he had once secretly exhibited his paintings under this name (his own name spelt backwards) at innovative young artists exhibitions during the course of his studies at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (as students were prohibited from exhibiting at left-wing exhibitions).
In short, Amra had noticed “Klaf's" paintings at those exhibitions and perhaps had even spotted the artist himself. As a young man (and in later years, too), Falk was handsome: tall, trim, broad-chested and long in the leg. True, his shoulders were too rounded, but he had a neck like Shota Rustaveli (judging by medieval images of the Georgian poet). He had huge blue eyes and neat features to the face, which shone with kindness.
The young woman introduced herself: “My name is Amra. I want you to paint my portrait." Falk agreed happily, but the task turned out to be quite a challenge. Amra sat patiently and willingly, but Falk struggled to capture the melodious rhythm of her body. Amra's unusual quality of body movement forced him to reconsider elements of technique, and to understand the rhythms of another human body. Falk made several dozen sketches and studies until he found the right kinesthetic response. Falk's archive contains at least 25 graphic sheets and, not being what you would call a thorough archivist, he threw a lot out. Moreover he would wipe his paint-seeped brushes across old sketches when there was nothing more suitable to hand.
Amra was a mulatto, her mother Russian and her father African (Amra's father may be the circus artist depicted in Falk's 1917 painting “African", housed in the collection of the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan). Amra's parents parted ways before the revolution, and the children were separated. Their father took his eldest daughter, Amra, with him to Paris, but her sister remained in Russia with their mother. Then, when her father left for America, Amra remained in Paris and, by the time she met Falk there, she had become a famous model, having sat for both Picasso and Matisse. One has to wonder whether it was not on account of Falk's light hand that Amra chose this profession.
In the canvas “Woman with a White Bandage" (winter 1922-1923, Tretyakov Gallery), the artist portrays Raisa Idelson. Raisa was born in Vitebsk to the family of a doctor, who was well-respected among the residents of the city. She was a beautiful, charming woman, well-educated and fluent in several languages (French, German, English); she read a lot, wrote poetry since childhood (and continued to do so all her life). She began to paint early, too, first in Vitebsk in the Pen studio, and then continuing lessons in Petrograd with Petrov-Vodkin. In Moscow, having become a student of VKHUTEMAS in 1921, she continued her education in Falk's workshop, and later became his wife. She provides a wonderful description in her diary of Falk's lessons as well as her impressions of his dreary studio-flat at 21, Myasnitskaya Street. <...> This portrait has been the subject of much art criticism. Falk managed to imbue in her depiction, so modest and contained, a great deal of warmth, tenderness and love. Idelson clings to the warm bricks of the small stove like a white dove. Despite the fact that the portrait was painted in a general manner, the glimmering light of kindness emanates from her whole appearance. The artist captures her character and love, more than an accurate portrait of photographic resemblance ever could have, filling the entire canvas with a delicate glistening of white light, saturated with a thousand shades.
In the portrait “Woman Combing Her Hair" (1926), the artist's wife is full of charm and femininity. Her smile radiates affection and even a touch of coquetry.
This is a ‘domestic' portrait, which belongs to Raisa's son, Yuly Aleksandrovich Labas. Falk gifted the painting to Raisa in the late 1930s.
The painting “Beggar" (1924) is housed in the S. Shuster Collection. Not a single museum was prepared to accept it, either by purchase or as a gift. It was an uncomfortable image: a pauper, embittered, but surprisingly with a head fashioned like that of a sage. This is what had attracted Falk's attention and inspired him. A beggar was sitting in the bitter cold on the ground near the central post office wall on Myasnitskaya Street dressed in torn rags, his legs tucked beneath him, wrapped in dirty cloth-bandages and with bast sandals on his feet. Nearby, looking around cautiously, was a crowd of people, whose attention had been hooked by the man's passionate, revealing wit and hoarse roundelays of sophisticated swearing. The beggar was slandering the Soviet regime with inspired cursing claiming that it had not only destroyed his “prosperous farmstead" and broken his family, now doomed to wrack and ruin, but had, moreover, brought about the disintegration of all Mother Russia's peasant class, condemning the poor souls to starvation. Majestic and formidable, his guise was, at the same time, something of Protopope Avvakum and a hunted wolf. Falk could not bear foul language or crudeness, but the unusual shape of the man's head, his intelligent, harsh yet youthful eyes and his strong, coarse, wilful face attracted the artist's attention. Falk pulled a notebook from his pocket, which he always kept with him, and, standing right there on the street, started making swift strokes with a pencil.
“Hey, artist!" the beggar growled. “You want to paint my portret?" Falk answered quietly, “Yes, I'd really like to make a large painting of you. I live nearby, just opposite. Only how will you get there? It's on the eighth floor and the lift is not working."
“What's in it for me?"
“I'll pay you by the hour." The beggar demanded what at the time could only be considered an astronomical fee in return for sitting for “a real photograph in paint", i.e. for a portrait. Falk tore a piece of paper from his notebook, wrote down the address with directions and set a time, “two o'clock in the afternoon." That was a Sunday.
At two o'clock prompt, there was a knock at the door. On the threshold was the beggar, only now standing at full height without his crutches and looking very presentable in a fur coat with fur lining, a winter hat with earflaps, and cowhide boots with shiny galoshes. He was quite the well-to-do chap from the times of the NEP. Falk was dumbfounded. He had already prepared the canvas and paints but was hugely disappointed by the jaunty air of his “model". Falk requested that the “model" appear in his original guise, in the role of a beggar, but the “model" argued long and hard and convinced the artist that the “portret" should depict him in all his glory. As a result, they finally concluded that the fee for the session should be doubled. Falk had no choice but to agree to the terms, as by now, the villain had him even more intrigued. The beggar had brought with him his professional attire and took up position on the studio floor. He talked a lot about life in the village, dekulakisation, how he, too, had been dekulakised and how, to avoid being exiled to Siberia, he had fled to the city and there come up with the profitable “profession" of beggar. “Good people give generously, especially if you start to swear and curse."
On leaving, the model wrapped up his rags in a well-made bag, never missing the opportunity to throw in some portion of the artist's property. Falk was a bit scatty and did not notice the loss, and even if he did, the desire to keep the model proved stronger than his scruples, for indeed the work went very well. But Falk used to paint earnestly and over a long period of time, and so he started deliberately putting something of his “provisions" out for the “beggar" - silver spoons or something of the kind. On one occasion, the “beggar" took it upon himself to pinch a box of tools containing tongs for stretching canvases, small hammers and other essential artist's accessories. Falk always prepared his materials in advance, meticulously stretching and priming his canvases, strictly observing the traditions of his workshop (the “Knave of Diamonds" group). Falk discovered the missing object the next day, but his model did not return. He rushed to the beggar's favourite spot, but could not find him anywhere no matter how hard he looked. He had clearly already relocated to another part of the city.
The painting was nonetheless exhibited successfully at exhibitions throughout the 1920s. It was eventually purchased by Suritz, our ambassador to France, for the Soviet embassy in Paris. But... when any visitor (among the French) spotted the painting, they instantly “recognised" it: “Voila! Votre Lenin!" (“So that's your Lenin!"), they would exclaim.
In truth, the “Socratic" skull and piercing gaze through narrowed eyes struck respect and even fear into the viewer and in some way did resemble Lenin's appearance. In the end, our embassy contacted the artist requesting that he replace the painting with a different one, which he did (although Falk had forgotten which painting was sent to replace it when recounting this tale).
“Portrait of K. Stanislavsky" (1926, Tretyakov Gallery). The chest-height portrait of Konstantin Stanislavsky (Alekseev), the father of Falk's second wife, Kira, was painted in 1926. Falk treated Konstantin with great respect, loved him and admired his artistic talent. Perhaps the awe that the artist always felt for Stanislavsky's persona prevented Falk from going beyond the bounds of what is an almost official portrait. According to his contemporaries (actors of the Moscow Art Theatre), the portrait depicts a great likeness and yet lacks the power of the man in life; there is no sense of being transported by the model, no glimpse into the model's inner world. This portrait is documentary in style, outwardly accurate but it does not go beyond that into capturing the image of a great artist.
Falk painted many portraits in Paris and his portraits of very simple folk whom he loved to paint are exceptional.
“A Brittany Fisherman" (1934, Tretyakov Gallery). At the exhibition, the viewer will have the opportunity to meet the Breton who scribbled his name on Falk's canvas, “Yves le Paon" (in Russian, ‘Ivan Pavlinov'). Like all Breton fishermen, he was fearless and strong, but rather primitive, a “child of nature" as the expression goes. He liked to go drinking on the shore. Falk was fascinated by the harsh landscape of Brittany and its people, like ancient carvings in wood and stone. Falk said that the ocean there is stormy and that fishing requires both strength and courage of a person. Rarely did one of the fishermen ever die peacefully in their bed at night. Every evening, their wives, daughters and mothers would gather on the shore and vigilantly stare into the distance, anxiously awaiting for the crimson sails of the fishing boats to appear on the horizon. In their black dresses and white bonnets, they looked like birds, their eyes colourless from endlessly gazing into the distance.
Portrait “Old Woman" (1931, Tretyakov Gallery). Falk met this old woman one day just outside the city in about 1931 before Valery came to live with him. At that time, Falk lived in the countryside and would wander through the forest with his Siamese cat collecting mushrooms. The cat loved mushrooms; first he would eat his fill and then he would take Falk to the spots where the mushrooms grew, leading the way with a hoarse meow. Falk was busy gathering mushrooms one day when he heard a rustle behind him. He turned round and was pleasantly stunned by the scene before him: a witch with grey hair carrying a bundle of brushwood and her eyes shone with fire. She was clearly completely dumbfounded by the sorcery-like scene she had stumbled upon: a cat gathering mushrooms together with a strange man. Falk did not hesitate to ask that she sit for him. They stared at each other for a while, both equally stunned, but then the old woman recovered her senses and hobbled away. When Falk spoke with his landlady about an old beggar he had met in the woods, poorly dressed and collecting brushwood, she said, “Ah, that must have been Matushka [priest's wife] Catherine. She is not at all poor or a beggar.
She has a big house here in the village. She collects brushwood to save spending money on coal. If you promise to pay her, she will sit for you." Penetrating the woman's fortress was no easy task. The place turned out to be a real citadel, a two-storey house with a walled fence that even had a run of barbed wire along the top. The old woman stared at him for a long time through the grating in the gate, but after Falk waved a packet of franc notes at her, she let the visitor in and began to sit for him. She was not very good at it though and kept falling asleep. She wanted to earn the money from sitting for the portraitist, but, at the same time, the idea that she was wasting time doing nothing bothered her and so she would try to catch a few winks as she did not usually sleep much; she was always on the go because she kept a large orchard and traded her harvest. Falk found it difficult to paint her. It pained him to observe such a ruin of a human being. “You know, in her time, she must have been beautiful, what a wonderful forehead she has and the contours of her face must have been beautiful too," I would say and Falk replied, “You guessed right. She was a real beauty, an enviable bride, but she was picky about her suitors to make sure she increased her wealth rather than losing it or investing it poorly." Recalling Balzac and Maupassant, Falk used to say that avarice was common among the French, particularly among the peasants and the bourgeoisie. He considered this work his great achievement!
“Portrait of a Son" (1933, Tretyakov Gallery). In 1933, Falk's son Valerik (an affectionate version of the name Valery) moved to live with his father in Paris. At that time, he was 17 and a sickly child. He took after his mother, Elizaveta Potekhina, tall, slender and subtle like a reed with a beautiful aristocratic face. “It is both joyful and sad," Falk writes in a letter to Moscow. "He's so pale and thin." Falk took measures to find a doctor who would help manage his son's health. Daily routine was the most important thing. The boy's father became his nurse: rubbing, seeing that the young man did his exercises, went on regular walks and ate nutritious food. Valerik began to recover and later even studied at the art studio, where they taught etching, wood cutting and lino cutting and, of course, painting. In a letter to Elizaveta, Falk writes, “He paints so wonderfully, not only externally, but in the deepest essence of art. And imagine it, quite in the principles of Rembrandt, and all quite organically because he has seen very little art." In a letter to his mother dated September 18, 1933, Falk writes to Moscow, “Despite Valerik's morbid condition, his presence gives me a sense of great, great fulfilment. He has become a true friend. He understands the most complex of issues and his understanding is completely akin to mine." Life with Valerik was not easy. In addition to caring for his son, Falk had to earn a living and run the homestead. “I live without servants - I do absolutely everything myself: light the fire, go to the market; I am cook and I clean and tidy the workshop, etc., and I must be the artist, search for sources of income, and meet with people. In order to paint, one's mood must not only be calm but elevated" (from a letter to the artist's mother, December 1933).
From the Penza gallery, the wonderful portrait of Abraham Mintchine, an artist who died too early, and with whom Falk was friends - painted very lightly, almost a sketched study. (It is possible that Falk would have liked to work on this piece more, but did not have the opportunity to do so. Mintchine did not live in Paris. He only visited, and when he did, Falk would stay with him). Abraham Mintchine was born in Kiev, Russia, but in the early 1920s, he left for Paris [via Berlin]. There, he participated in exhibitions and enjoyed a certain level of success, but he died before his time. He set out one day to sketch and died on the way among flowering fields.
Portrait “Parisian (Eliane Tayar)", painted in 1935, hangs in the Kursk Art Gallery. Eliane Tayar's appearance was a combination of French grace and elegance with an oriental languor; she is the daughter of a French marquise and an Arab sheikh. As a filmmaker, she played a role in the life of Parisienne culture. Falk spotted her one day in a cafe and was instantly sparked with the desire to paint her portrait. Overcoming his usual shyness, he approached her, introduced himself and rather awkwardly expressed his desire to paint her... Eliane was touched by the artist's timidity and obvious admiration for her, but first she wanted to be acquainted with his painting. Falk invited Tayar and her companion to visit the “Salon d'Automne’’ (Autumn Salon) exhibition, located nearby, where his work was being exhibited. Madame Tayar was very taken with Falk's work and her partner commissioned Falk to paint her portrait on the spot. Work on the painting dragged on for several months and, in the meantime, the customer (a financier, who bet on the stock exchange) went bankrupt. The portrait remained unredeemed with the artist. To console his model, Falk made several watercolour and pastel portraits (a technique in which he worked very quickly) and asked her to choose one as a gift.
“Sick Greek Woman" (1935) Tretyakov Gallery. “I don't like painting successful people. For me, unfortunate folk have a kind of mysterious magnetic draw,’ Falk said. The Greek woman, a native of sunny Greece, was quietly dying in the comparatively damp, cold climate of Paris. (Do you remember from Pushkin's “The Stone Guest," the line: “... there, far to the north, in Paris ..."?). She lived very poorly in an attic without heating, warming herself with a smoky kerosene stove and was ill with tuberculosis. Falk worked on her portrait for an exceedingly long time, and when, at last, it was finished, he said, “Now you can rest. I must have worn you out?" The woman gave a sad smile and said, “Now I will have nothing to live for... at least I had something to do ..." Soon after, she died. Who was she? What did she do in life? Alas, I did not ask Falk about her at the time. I did in fact meet the ‘sick Greek woman' recently in Moscow and found her to be vital, dynamic, exacting. Falk was reluctant to talk about his “connections" with Russian emigres in France, even with his relatives. It was for this reason that Vera Alekseevna Lavrova, daughter of a famous Russian politician and writer' was transformed into the “Greek Woman”. I chose the title for my memories of Falk's models "People and Images. Biographies and Legends" for good reason. Vera quite convincingly described the interior of Falk's studio, the details of which were known both from his letters to relatives and the communications of Ilya Ehrenburg. I remember especially vividly her account of coming quite often to Falk's studio (she had her own key), sitting down in an armchair, reading and watching Falk work as he stood at the easel. “At the same time, his back and neck were very tense." It was details such as these in her accounts of Falk that evoked in me a certain respect for Vera. I tried to help her as much as I could in her comings and goings between France and Russia. She took part in the Resistance, and was received with honour at the Writers' Union and other public organisations, the funds from which enabled her to travel through the Union. I took her to exhibitions and helped her with money. In Paris, she had refuge in a veterans' boarding house and received a good pension (600 roubles in Russian money), but she claimed her entire pension went towards paying for the boarding house. Our boarding house (near Rechnoy Vokzal) was considered highly prestigious in our artistic circles, but she did not rate it at all and, finding it to be so miserable, she left and lived instead with friends at their expense. She died somewhere at the crossroads between Moscow and Paris.
The portrait “Woman in a Yellow Blouse" (Tretyakov Gallery) was painted in the spring of 1944. On the eve of 1944, we returned from evacuation in Samarkand. Then, in the very first sunny days of spring, the tropical malaria, which I had acquired in 1943, suddenly “woke up." I had a high fever and chills alternating with terrible weakness and low temperature. I turned yellow from the quinacrine and my face acquired a pale-green tint from weakness. My cheap blouse, which was raw silk in bright yellow, only emphasised my pallor (I sold all my “outfits" during the evacuation and had to buy whatever I could find that was affordable). As is often the case, artists value clothing from a completely different perspective to non-artists. As soon as the sickness subsided, I got up to wash my face and hair. Completely exhausted after this “feat," I was heading back to bed, when Falk called out to me to freeze right where I was. He quickly brought up an easel and canvas (the sketchbook easel was always at the ready) and started painting in haste. I could not pose in this position for more than 20-30 minutes before collapsing on the bed. Again and again, the fever gripped me, while Falk would wait for the fit to end and then sit me down to pose, at least for another 20 minutes or so. I started to recover and could sit for longer, but then the worst happened! A slight flush appeared in my cheeks and my lips turned a rose colour, at which point, I ceased to be a suitable model! As a husband, Falk rejoiced at my recovery, but as an artist, he was dismayed. In truth, all I could think of during these sessions was how to “hold the pose" at least for half an hour and I tried as hard as I could. I felt sorry for Falk. He really wanted to paint me while I was still in that condition. Later, he said, “When I was painting your portrait in that yellow blouse and white scarf, I was thinking of Picasso’s ‘Woman from Mallorca'. There was a fragility to it, as well as a certain pride and dignity."
Portraits of Tata Selvinskaya painted by Falk in 1944 at the dacha in Peredelkino belonging to the poet Ilya Selvinsky. The first portrait commissioned by Ilya is “Tata in Red" (private collection, Moscow). In this painting, a very pretty girl with olive skin is sitting with her arms resting on the table, one hand over the other. The second portrait, “Tata in Blue" (private collection, Moscow), was painted straight after the first. Falk painted this portrait for himself and more expressively, no longer trying to achieve a perfect resemblance. Falk's work went well in the atmosphere of the warm, wooden home. The energetic tapping of a typewriter could be heard on the other side of the wall, where Selvinsky was busy writing. Falk could hear the sonorous voice of Berta Yakovlevna, the poet's wife, which was in turn echoed by the chirping of birds outside the window as the sun made its way through the dense branches of the garden sending sunbeams bouncing off the floor and walls. Falk was reluctant to leave the cosy atmosphere of this home. And there was Tata, too, who always sat in silence, mysterious and contemplative. In the autumn of the same year, Tata began to take painting lessons from Falk at his studio. “The light and smell of his rooms penetrated his canvases entirely. When I look at these mother-of-pearl canvases, I remember my precious childhood. <...> He had an amazing life, without fuss, without envy, without pose — the true life of an artist," Tata writes in her reminiscences.
We liked to visit the Selvinskys at their smart, cosy flat on Lavrushinsky Lane, to sit in the dining room where the table would be laden with treats. I really wanted to hear Selvinsky read his poetry, but he preferred to listen to Falk's stories of Paris, while quietly fingering his amber rosary. Cheery Berta Yakovlevna laughed loudly at my stories of events that took place in our studio. I remember the moment when the idea arose to paint a portrait of Tata's half-sister, Tsilia Voskresenskaya.
We were sitting at the table laughing, when suddenly, a girl with a slender figure, a high hairdo and densely powdered face appeared at the dining room door. Tsilia had just arrived home from the theatre and, barely having had time to wash off her makeup, hurried to greet the guests. She was wearing a bright, figure-hugging sweater. Falk, who had not noticed Tsilia previously, having looked only at Tata, was amazed by her. He stared, took off his glasses, wiped them, put them back on and did not take his eyes off her the entire evening. Then, he asked permission to paint her portrait. The Selvinskys bought this portrait, as well as “Tata in Red."
Somehow or other, Viktor Shklovsky agreed to sit for Falk, although he had not quite realised what a drawn-out affair it would be. An agile, extremely dynamic man, Shklovsky found it difficult to sit even for a handful of sessions. He was always jumping up, doing exercises and in a hurry to escape. I took a few days off purely for the purpose of entertaining him during the sessions and did everything except dance for him. Still, I could not persuade him to continue and the portrait remained at a stage that left both artist and model dissatisfied. Falk could not “forge" the canvas to move it on to the next stage and Shklovsky considered Falk inadequate, an artist who simply “pasted it on with a brush continually in the same spot". His response seemed to confirm the fact that writers rarely feel a painting as such; their route is through literature, through the plot. Nevertheless, the portrait did turn out to be characteristic of the model and the bookshelves behind the writer created an “urban backdrop." Falk asked me to “randomly" arrange the books so that they created the sense of a restless modern city. And "by chance," I succeeded. And Shklovsky looks as if he might jump out of the frame at any moment and start pouring out aphorisms and witticisms.
Of those who sat for Falk, one of the most remarkable was Aleksander Gabrichevsky, an astoundingly erudite man, art historian, polyglot, and artist, a “Renaissance man," as his friends called him. Gabrichevsky was unique even among his own generation. Falk and he were not particularly close prior to work on the portrait. Falk was more taken by his wife, Natalya Severtsova. He liked her paintings very much. They were quirky, unusual and bold. One might have called her an amateur if it were not for the fact that her work carried the imprint of such high intelligence.
Once, Severtsova came to see Falk quite distressed and told him that Gabrichevsky was unwell and losing his sight. Forbidden to drink, read or work, he was drowning in melancholy. “Paint his portrait," she said, “it will give him something to do." Falk went to see Gabrichevsky straight away and brought him to our flat. The first portrait, a head and shoulders, gives a precise resemblance with a refined use of colour. Falk worked on the piece for several months and during these sessions, artist and model conversed. They had deep discussions about art, poetry, literature and music. They shared with each other the most precious thoughts about their lives and the times.
Often, after the painting session was over, they would sit at the piano and play together Bach's “Brandenburg Concertos" and sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart. And then as they sat at the piano, they would analyse the great works. When I was at home and privy to these incredible lectures, I had the feeling of being immersed in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, to say nothing of how they evaluated contemporary events! Falk usually escorted Gabrichevsky home afterwards.
In the autumn of the following year, Falk began a new, knee-high portrait of Gabrichevsky. His powerful frame clothed in a loose house jacket is full of dynamism. It is even strange that such a lively, dynamic pose could have been maintained throughout the duration of the work. Gabrichevsky's magnificent head as if carved by a sculptor is the head of a thinker who asserts and embodies their ideas.
The sessions were held at the studio but Falk and Gabrichevsky were inseparable for days at a time: either they would play the piano at home or they would attend Richter's concerts together. The conversations between artist and model were serious, weighty even. It must be said that Gabrichevsky was an exceptionally well-educated individual. He spoke several foreign languages, translated Dante, wrote commentaries on Thomas Mann, delivered lectures on the subjects of architecture and art history, was an expert on music while also playing an instrument, and he too painted and also wrote. Despite all this, he had none of the arrogance so often characteristic of scholars. He was also easy and pleasant in conversation and had the knack of making his conversant feel that they were more clever and interesting than usual.
Ever since Falk first saw the wonderful actor Solomon Mikhoels in the early 1920s staging of “Night at the Old Market" by Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, he dreamed of painting his portrait. Some say that Mikhoels was unattractive, even ugly, but I thought his lively, intelligent, constantly changing face was beautiful. Those who saw him on stage could never forget his inspired, expressive plasticity. Falk was always captured by the spell of Mikhoels' talent and intelligence, but it was only towards the end of the 1940s that he managed to persuade Mikhoels to sit for a portrait. In those years, Mikhoels was as busy as it is possible to be: leadership of GOSET, the Jewish antifascist committee, endless speeches, directing and stage work all made it impossible for him to devote even an hour or two to the artist. And then Falk asked Mikhoels' permission to be present in his office when he was receiving visitors. Sometimes, he would sit there for several hours at a time watching Mikhoels talking and making sketches. Mikhoels's movements were unpredictable. His body language changed with lightning speed depending on the content of a dialogue. “Mikhoels is a great actor with a God-given gift. He does not ‘act,' he ‘lives'. He lives in a state of perpetual communication," Falk would say. Falk was often so captivated by the sight of the conversants, that he became distracted from his drawing. We had several very different paintings of Mikhoels, all painted by Falk, at home before they were sent off to various museums. Falk worked on the portrait from life intermittently for many years. He finished it in the year of the artist's tragic death, on the eve of his departure to Minsk, where he was killed.
Falk, Mikhoels and I once spent an unforgettable evening with General Linkov, the legendary “Batya" of the Belarusian guerrilla militia. Linkov's book “At the Rear of the Enemy" was enacted in a GOSET play “Forests Are Noisy", for which Falk designed the scenery and costumes. Driving home afterwards in a taxi (Mikhoels accompanied us), I asked, “Solomon Mikhailovich, do you regret that you have no time to take on new roles due to being so incredibly busy?" Mikhoels replied, “I dream of playing Shakespeare, ‘The Merchant of Venice' and ‘Richard III'." Anyone who ever saw Mikhoels and Zuskin's brilliant duet in “King Lear” can imagine the creative insights of which theatre-goers have been deprived.
Many of Falk's visitors were poets and writers, among them Boris Slutsky, Veniamin Kaverin, Ilya Selvinsky and his family, and Ksenia Nekrasova.
“Portrait of Poet Ksenia Nekrasova" (1950, Russian Museum). Falk decided to paint this portrait quite unexpectedly, when Ksenia visited us one day dressed in a long, floor-length, fustian dress, sewn for her by Lily Yakhontova. “They gave me a velvet dress, and I strung the beads from beans," she said showing herself off. “Perfect!" Falk exclaimed and he sat her down on a stool and began to paint her portrait against the background of our studio's white walls. She sits with her small hands folded in her lap staring at the viewer with a detached, melancholy look. Falk said that in her portrait he wanted to convey the integrity and folk character of her poetry, “I wanted to mould her from a clump like a toy from clay, rounded and strong."
Few people are acquainted with Nekrasova's poetry, there are but a handful who love and understand her pure and exalted verse. All kinds of myths were composed about her and Nekrasova had a difficult fate and yet, in her poems, there is not the slightest ring of complaint about her own hardship and suffering. Of herself, she writes, “I shall live a long time, for I am part of Rus'". Falk said that the following lines from her verses reminded him of Yaroslavna's lament in “Slovo o polku Igoreve" (The Tale of Igor's Campaign):
What is it you seek, my verse,
at the mounds of the interred?
For whom do these aspen leaves
lie at the hem
of your homespun skirts?
at the graves
of our soldiers.
and make the spring.
Do you hear the herons
beating their wings
against these blue hills?
Falk would not show Nekrasova the portrait until it was finished. She evidently saw herself differently to how the artist perceived her. When she finally saw the canvas, she turned to me and said, “why did he paint me like a cleaning maid? I am refined." “Ksenia, dear, you are better than refined, you are of the people, and more than that, you are a Poet." Nekrasova was a little comforted by these words. Falk showed the portrait to his guests and everyone liked it. Later, Nekrasova came to see that he had captured her true likeness, the likeness of a people's poet.
Perhaps, in his portraits, Falk was always more attracted by the general plasticity of the body than by the psychology of the “facial expression". He was not keen on “gesture", considering it too posed. He was of the opinion that a person's character is more fully expressed in the movement of the hands (although he did not mean gesticulation!) or their position when at rest, rather than in facial expression. He argued that “the profile is a reflection of what a person is given by nature," but a person works on their ‘frontal' and learns to mask the things they wish to hide. “The back is the most revealing of all."
Preparation of text, publication and comments by Yulia Didenko
- From the memoirs of Angelina Shchekin-Krotova // Robert Falk. Drawings, watercolours, gouache: exhibition catalogue / Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow. 1979. Unpaged.
- Amra Thompson (about 1900-?), daughter of a circus artist, life model.
- “... We are going to see Falk. He lives on Myasnitskaya Street in the house where the ‘Architecture and Sculpture’ studios were located, on the 8th floor in Arkhipov’s old workshop. We climb up the endless stairs because the lift is not working. <...> A huge, cold workshop with large canvases everywhere (there are so many!). Everything is in an extraordinary mess ... In this huge workshop, Falk seems to me even larger than usual.” For more detail see Idelson, R. From the diary of a VKHUTEMAS student // Falk, R.R. “Conversations About Art”. “Letters”. “Memories of the Artist” / Shchekin-Krotova Collection. Moscow. 1981. Pp. 167-175.
- Labas, Y.A. (1933-2008) biologist, memoirist. The painting is now in the collection of his daughter, Alisa Labas.
- Solomon Shuster (19341995) was a prominent Leningrad collector, a professional film director. Today, the painting is kept by his grandson, Valentin Shuster, St. Petersburg.
- Yakov Suritz (1882-1952), Soviet diplomat, plenipotentiary representative of the USSR in France (1937-1940)
- Konstantin Stanislavsky (ne Alekseev; 1863-1938), theatre director, actor, educator, ideologist, manager and reformer of the theatre. With Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, he co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre (1898).
- Kira Alekseeva (1891-1977), artist, second wife of Robert Falk, daughter of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Maria Lilina, mother of Kirilla Falk (19212006), the artist’s daughter.
- Valery Romanovich Falk (19161943) - artist, son of Robert Falk and his first wife Elizaveta Potekhina. In 1933, he went to stay with his father in Paris, where they lived together before moving back to Russia in December 1937.
- Angelina Shchekin-Krotova based her short story “Old Woman” on a detailed account of this woman that Falk repeated many times. See: People and Images. Biographies and legends. Panorama of the Arts. Issue 8. Moscow. 1985. pp.203-208.
- Cit. Falk, R.R. Conversations About Art. Letters. ‘Memories of the Artist’. Moscow., 1981. P.137.
- (Ibid.) P. 134.
- Ibid. P.135.
- Mintchine, Abraham (1898, Kiev- 1931, La Gard, near Toulon), French artist, immigrated from Ukraine to Paris. Mintchine arrived in Paris in 1926 and became part of a group of painters surrounding Soutine and Chagall.
- “Falk painted a portrait of Abraham Mintchine in one or two sessions, which the model liked so much, he asked Falk to sell or gift it to him. Falk, however, would not; he wanted to continue working on the piece. He liked to spend a long time on a portrait, especially if he was very taken with the model. Mintchine would not pose after that. The artists quarrelled slightly” (Cit. Falk, R. Conversations About Art. Letters. Memories of the Artist. Moscow. 1981. Pp. 115-116).
- In the final years, Abraham Mintchine and his family often spent time in Provence.
- From a letter by Robert Falk addressed to his wife, Raisa Idelson, dated April 2, 1931, and written on a train: “I spent a week at Minchin’s [in the South of France]. It was a real break for me in many ways. His warm, sincere attitude was very important to me <...>” (Cit. Falk, R. Conversations About Art. Letters. Memories of the Artist. Moscow. 1981. P. 115).
- See Falk’s letter to his wife, Raisa Idelson, dated May 6, 1931: “All this week, I have been most affected by the news of Mintchine's death. His widow came to visit with the girl, and I spent a lot of time with her. And still, I like his death: he died walking home from work carrying an unfinished canvas. A hill with red flowers. He was 33 years old. I am getting closer and closer to him. You know how much I need a male friend. He was that for me” (Cit. Falk R.R. Conversations About Art. Letters. Memories of the Artist. Moscow. 1981. P. 118).
- Tayar, Eliane (1903-1986), actress, film director, of Lebanese descent; one of the first directors of Lebanese cinema. In early 1930s Paris, she was a close friend of Maria Lieberson (founder of the Parisian children’s puppet theatre Petrushka), whose daughter, the renowned translator Lilianne Lungina recalled: “I distinctly remember one of [my mother’s friends], whom I adored, an actress and great beauty with huge green eyes, Eliane Tayar; she sometimes took me with her to the film studio and for some reason told everyone there that I was her daughter. <> She obviously longed for a child and had become attached to me, <...> perhaps won over by the fact that I so adored and admired her. But one day, I received a letter, in which Eliane wrote that she would no longer be able to see us: she had met a man who demanded that she break with all her previous acquaintances. He wanted her to belong solely to him. Moreover, he was a royalist and hated everything connected with the Soviet Union. I was devastated by our separation and sobbed. <...> We had been living in Moscow for about a year [this was 1935], when I received a letter from her out of the blue. Eliane wrote, “I am very unhappy. The person I loved has left me. May I come and see you? Perhaps there, I could start life afresh.” I answered her right away but never heard anything from her again” (Cit. Between the Lines: Life of Lilianna Lungina, told by her in the film by Oleg Dorman. Moscow.: Corpus, 2010. Pp. 51, 54, 62, Black and white photograph on the insert between pages 64-65)
- Also well-known as an actress. Her filmography includes five French films at the turn of the 1920s-1930s: the adaptation of E. Zola’s novel “Money” (“L’Argente”, 1928, silent film directed by Marcel l’Herbier ), “La Veine” (1928, directed by Rene Barberis, in the role of the soubrette), the main role in “Amour et Carrefour” (1929, directed by Georges Peclet), “Embrassez-moi” (1929, directed by Robert Peguy), “L'ame de Pierre” (1929, directed by Gaston Roudes). Worked as an assistant to the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer on the set of the mystical film “Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Gray” (1932).
- Information about the model is given in the article: Badelin V. “Greek woman” from Russia: (on the history of a portrait by Robert Falk) // newspaper “Leninist” (Ivanovo). 1987. No. 153. 9th August 9. P.3.
- The story about the “Sick Greek Woman“ was not included in the publication in “Panorama of Arts. Issue 8” (Moscow. 1985
- This refers to the painting by Pablo Picasso “Spanish Woman from Mallorca” (1905; gouache, watercolour on cardboard; 67 x 51 cm; Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts).
- Selvinskaya, Tatiana Ilyinichna (1927-2020), painter, set designer, educator, poet, daughter of the poet Ilya Selvinsky.
- Robert Falk. “Portrait of Tatiana Selvinskaya (in red)”. (1944). Oil on canvas. 71 x 59 cm. Private collection. Moscow
- Tata Selvinskaya clarified this information: she took lessons from Falk from 1938 to 1941 and from 1943 to 1944. “I studied with him twice. The first time thanks to my father. I had been drawing since birth. By the age of 11, my parents, evidently, realised that I ought to have lessons. Falk’s student, the famous theatre artist Sophia Vishnevetskaya, wife of Vsevolod Vishnevsky, was Dad’s friend and she advised him to send me to Falk. The artist lived opposite the house on the embankment; we lived in Lavrushinsky Lane, so at the age of 11, I was able to walk there by myself. Falk lived in the attic above the Swedish Embassy. <...> The workshop is amazing, the light inside was ashy. It was a real artist’s studio, large and quite tidy. There was a harpsichord, which he played. He didn’t teach me anything. He arranged still-lifes for me to paint. He just praised me and played, and I painted to his music. I studied with him for two years, until 1941. In 1941, we left. I returned in 1943 and had lessons with Falk from 1943 to 1944. Then he taught me seriously. I was 16 years old. Falk taught me that every stroke on the canvas must be composed. It was incredibly hard. When I began to teach myself, it turned out that I remembered everything. Before the war, he accepted payment from my dad, but after the war, he would not accept money, although by then he was very poor. That was when my dad commissioned him to paint my portrait. Falk came every day: he would paint my portrait in red one day, and every other day, he would paint it in blue. He painted for an hour, then lay down for an hour and then painted for another hour.” (From the documentary film “Self-portrait in a Red Fez. Robert Falk”. Russia, 2006. Scripwriter Olga Merkusheva, director Aleksander Shuvikov. Cit. https://tvkultura.ru/brand/show/brand_id/29233/).
- See: Selvinskaya, T.I. “My Teacher” // Falk, R. Conversations About Art. Letters. Memories of the Artist. Moscow. 1981. Pp. 178-179.
- Voskresenskaya, Tsetsilia Aleksandrovna (nee Abarbarchuk, 1923-2006), actress, teacher of stage skills, half-sister of Tatiana Selvinskaya, stepdaughter to Ilya Selvinsky. Author of “My Memoirs” (Simferopol, 2003), where the story of the portrait’s history is cited in the chapter “Only the beginning” (Pp. 141-149).
- Robert Falk. “Portrait of Cecilia Voskresenskaya”. (1946). Oil on canvas. 74 x 60.5 cm. Private collection. Moscow.
- Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984), writer, literary critic, film and literature theorist, scriptwriter.
- Gabrichevsky, A. (1891-1968), art critic, plastic arts theorist, translator, literary critic, son of the renowned bacteriologist Georgy Gabrichevsy. From the early 1950s onwards, one of Falk’s close friends.
- Severtsova-Gabrichevsky, Natalya (1901-1970), artist, actress, student of Yuri Zavadsky, owner of the legendary residence in Koktebel.
- Gabrichevsky, A. and his wife lived in Moscow at Flat 20, 6 Herzen Street.
- Mikhoels, Solomon Mikhailovich (real name Vovsi, 1890-1948), actor and director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (GOSET), theatre teacher, public figure; People’s Artist of the USSR (1939); Laureate of the Stalin Prize, second degree (1946).
- Peretz, Yitskhok Leybush (1852-1915), writer, one of the founders of new literature in Yiddish. In the symbolic play, written in blank verse, “Bay nakht oyfn altn mark” (“Night at the Old Market”, 1907), the line between reality and fantasy, between life and death, is blurred.
- Linkov, Grigory Mat- veyevich (1899-1961), legendary commander of the 1st Belarusian partisan detachment (1941-1942), from 1943 onwards, commander of the sabotage and reconnaissance group, known under the pseudonym ‘Batya’. Colonel. Hero of the Soviet Union (1943).
- The play “Forests are Noisy” based on the book by Aleksey Brat and Grigory Linkov was staged in 1947 (director Solomon Mikhoels, composer Lev Pulver).
- Numerous studies and sketches of set design for the play, including a curtain design, are now housed at the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum.
- Ksenia Nekrasova (19121958), poet. For details of Falk’s work on the portrait of Ksenia Nekrasova, see Shchekin-Krotova, A.V. People and Images. Biographies and legends. Panorama of the Arts. Issue 8. Moscow. 1985. pp.216-227.
- Elikonida Yakhontova (nee Popova) (1903-1964), director, writer, artist, wife of actor
Oil on canvas. 174 × 121 cm
© Russian Museum, St. Petersbu
Oil on canvas. 129.5 × 103 cm
© National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan
Oil on canvas. 118 × 67 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Sketch for the painting “Mulatto Girl Amra” (1918, Russian Museum). Lead pencil on paper. 27.6 × 20.5 cm
Mamontov Family Collection, Moscow
Sketch for the painting “Mulatto Girl Amra” (1918, Russian Museum). Pencil on paper. 35 × 22cm
© National Museum Kiev Picture Gallery
Oil on canvas. 117 × 94 cm
Valentin Shuster Collection, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas. 71.5 × 59 cm
Alisa Labas Collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 65.5 × 51 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 63.6 × 53 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 81 × 65.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 80.5 × 65 cm
© Savitsky Regional Art Gallery, Penza
Oil on canvas. 73 × 59.8 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
. Oil on canvas. 65 × 55.2 cm
© Kursk Art Gallery
Oil on canvas. 81 × 64 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 80 × 65 cm
Private collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 71 × 59 cm
Private collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 60 × 42 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 80 cm
© State Literary Museum, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 74 × 60.5 cm
Private collection, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 81 × 65 cm
© Perm State Art Gallery
Oil on canvas. 118 × 110 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 84 × 79 cm
Valentin Shuster Collection, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas. 120 × 79 cm
© Russian Museum