27.10.1886 – 01.10.1958, Moscow
Painter, graphic artist, theatre designer
Falk was born in Moscow into the family of a lawyer and chess player who had come from the Baltic. As a child he attended music school, with the intention of going on to the conservatoire. At the same time, from 1902 to 1905, he studied at Konstantin Yuon and Ivan Dudin’s art school, then at Ilya Mashkov’s school of drawing and painting. In 1905 he enrolled at Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, studying under Abram Arkhipov, Leonid Pasternak, Apollinary Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin. The latter had a particularly strong influence on the young Falk. In 1910, he broke off his studies to travel round Italy.
From 1910 to 1916 he took part in exhibitions of the Jack of Diamonds association, becoming a member of the association in 1911. Falk’s pictures show not only Cézanne’s influence, but that of Fauvism and, to some extent, Cubism.
After the Revolution, Falk became actively involved in setting up new artistic institutions. In 1918 he helped set up the Free State Art Studios (VKhUTEMAS), where he taught in the painting studio until 1926. After the Jack of Diamonds disbanded, in 1924 he founded the Moscow Painters’ Association. He did the designs for many plays at the Jewish theatres Gabima and GOSET.
From 1928 he worked in Paris for almost ten years – a period that proved decisive for his creative development. He painted pictures that remained true to his great inspiration, Cézanne, but filled them with a shimmering of colours that were rich but at the same time restrained, and with a melancholy that so characterised his work.
In 1937, at the height of the political terror, Falk returned to Moscow, where he took part in exhibitions and continued to work in the theatre.
During the War he was evacuated to Samarkand, in Central Asia. He taught history, geography and German at secondary school, and drawing and painting at art college.
After the War, 1947–1953, the second wave of Stalinist terror began. It now went after the ‘Westernised’ artistic intelligentsia and Jews. Falk fell into both these categories. The Jewish theatres, where he had done so much work, were closed, and it became impossible for him to pursue his teaching work or take part in exhibitions. At the same time, Falk’s reputation as an exponent of Jewish painting and culture, as a link to a broken tradition, acquired legendary dimensions. In 1954, very soon after Stalin’s death, Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw appeared. One of its heroes, Saburov, was inspired by Robert Falk and the novel gave its name to a whole period in Soviet history.
For all its modesty and feeling of calm, Falk’s art had a huge influence both on the official painting of Socialist Realism, a diluted and distorted version of it prevailing in Soviet art teaching theory, and on the emerging non-conformist art of widely differing artists such as Bulatov, Vasiliev, Steinberg, Weisberg and Kabakov. V.G.