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Friday, April 28, 2017

Robert Rafailovich Falk

Paris, Canal Saint-Martin, 1930, Robert Falk
With the obvious exception of North Korea, there are very few countries left in the world today where painters need worry much about political censorship or retribution. That's not the case from a religious point of view, but then religion has always superseded politics as a coercive force to be reckoned with. Political ideology is fluid and ever evolving. Religious dogma is pretty much etched in stone (literally, in some cases). Roughly one-hundred years ago, one of the great cultural giants of the entire world fell under the crushing yoke of dictatorial Communism (they were called Bolsheviks at the time). Art became a tool of the state; artist were forced either to flee their homeland or submit creative control of their work to the state. The Russian painter Robert Rafailovich Falk tried both.
Falk was fluent in all the major painting styles of his day.
The Russian artist with the (mostly) American name, not to be confused with Peter (Colombo) Falk, was born in 1886. He grew up in Moscow to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in the years before the revolution. In 1910, Falk became one of the founders of what we might call today the Moscow chapter of the Paul Cezanne fan club. They didn't call themselves that of course. The group of rebellious young artists chose the name "Jack of Diamonds." All other visual art they considered too trivial and bourgeois. This point of view was not, by the way, limited to this particular group of Russian upstarts. Cezanne was practically worshipped by avant-garde artists all over Europe at the time.
The Cubist similarities between Falk and Cezanne are
striking, and by no means accidental.
Starting in 1918 and until around 1928, Falk taught at the State Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops. The oppressive yoke of Communist domination of art and artists did not exert its smothering effects in one fell swoop like a shroud over a dead body. It settled over the Russian art world, mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg (by that time called Leningrad) quite gently before tightening a strangling grip with the death of Lenin in 1924. Perhaps seeing the "handwriting on the wall" and the soaring star of Stalin, Falk took a short trip to Paris in 1928. He stayed ten years.
While safely ensconced in Paris, Falk seems to have picked
up an appreciation for Impressionism and Claude Monet.
As witnessed by his Paris, Canal Saint-Martin (top), from 1930, Falk apparently fared quite well in Paris alongside many of his Russian counterparts who came there before he did and those who managed to escape the political oppression of Stalinization in the horrifying years that followed. Despite being one of the fortunate ones who made it out alive, Falk returned to Moscow in 1938, where he managed to work in secluded isolation, "under the radar" of official government supervision and the muscular social realism that came with it.
Still Life with Bottles and Pitcher, 1912, Robert Falk
Despite the Communist "cult of personality" starting with Lenin and continuing under Stalin; and the near-deification of the party leaders that came with it, Stalin died in 1953. The transition from one Soviet leader to another has always been a rather messy affair. In this case, a political stalwart, who had somehow managed to survive all the Stalinist purges, crawled out of the party woodwork to emerge as the Soviet Premier--Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Shortly thereafter, around 1956, he initiated the "de-Stalinization" of the government and, in effect, the de-deification of Joseph Stalin. Included as part of this process was a period which came to be known as the "Khrushchev Thaw."

Artwork by Bernard Safran
September, 1959: Khrushchev's "thaw" ushered into
the Soviet Union a new wave of consumerism and freedom
of expression not seen since the days of the Russian Czars. 
Alley, 1933, Robert Falk
This period, from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, saw repression and censorship of artistic expression in the Soviet Union relaxed. Millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulag labor camps, and peaceful coexistence with other nations became the hallmark of Soviet foreign policy. During the "Khrushchev Thaw" Robert Falk once more became popular among young painters. Many considered him to be the main bridge between the traditions of the Russian and French Modern Art of the beginning of 20th century and Russian avant-garde of the 1960s. Khrushchev, for his part, and despite his "thaw," was no great lover of Modern Art. He declared: “As long as I am president of the Council of Ministers, we are going to support a genuine art. We aren’t going to give a kopeck for pictures painted by jackasses.” Unfortunately, by this time Falk was over seventy and in ill health. He died in 1958 at the age of seventy-two, never having come to enjoy the new eras of glasnost and perestroika which came to follow.

The Night on the Market, Robert Falk--artists fearfully emerging from a long famine to taste a few sips of freedom.
Lisa In The Sunlight (the artist's
wife), 1907, Robert Falk

A Young Girl with Braids,
Robert Falk


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