Set design by Robert Fal'k for Mendele Moykher-Sforim's Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin III), produced by Aleksandr Granovskii, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, 1927. Oil on canvas. (GDC 989. 313889; © Federal State Institution of Culture "A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum," Moscow)

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Fal’k, Robert

(1886–1958), graphic artist, painter, set designer, and art teacher. Born in Moscow, Robert Fal’k received a secular Russian education. In 1903 he completed his studies at the Petropavlovsk Real School in Moscow. In 1904–1905 he studied drawing and painting with Konstantin Iuon (1875–1958) and Ivan Dudin (1867–1924), as well as at the private studio of Ilya Mashkov (1881–1944). From 1905–1912, Fal’k was a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. In 1909, before his marriage, he converted to Christianity and received the name Roman. From 1910–1916 Fal’k was a core member of the Bubnovyi Valet (Knave of Diamonds) Artists Union, and in 1917 he participated in exhibitions put on by the Mir Issukstva (World of Art) movement.

Krasnaia mebl (Red furniture). Robert Fal'k, Moscow, 1920. Oil on canvas. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (© The State Tretyakov Gallery)

In the years before World War I, Fal’k became a professional painter, recognized as one of the leading Russian followers of Cézanne. Like other artists of this school, Fal’k favored the genres of landscape, still-life, and portraiture; Jewish motifs were almost completely absent from his work. Nevertheless, prewar Jewish critics persisted in viewing him as one of the most promising Jewish painters, along with Marc Chagall and Natan Al’tman. During World War I, Fal’k in fact began to develop contacts with the Jewish art world in Petrograd. In 1915–1916 he participated in the work of the Jewish Theatrical Society and prepared sketches for scenery and costumes for the production of Bibleiskie kartiny (Biblical Scenes), performed by the Society in 1916.

During the first years after the revolution, Fal’k moved to Moscow and worked in the Department of the Arts of the People’s Commissariat of Education. From 1918 to 1928 he was professor of painting at the Advanced State Art and Technical Workshops–Advanced State Art and Technical Institute (Vkhutemas-Vkhutein) in Moscow. In 1921 he was also appointed curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Vitebsk. From 1922 to 1924 Fal’k was a member of the Artistic Section of the Kultur-lige in Moscow.

During these years Fal’k’s collaboration with the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET) began. He prepared sketches of scenery and costumes for the production of Y. L. Peretz’s Bay nakht afn altn mark (A Night at the Old Marketplace; 1925) and Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Travels of Benjamin the Third; 1927). In 1927–1928 Fal’k traveled to France. He resided mainly in Paris, where two individual exhibitions of his works were held in 1929 and 1937. In 1930 he visited Berlin. While there he produced designs for Habimah’s production of Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta.

When he returned to the Soviet Union, Fal’k continued working in the Yiddish theater. Using stage sets designed and painted by Fal’k, Moscow GOSET performed M. Daniel’s Shloyme Maimon, Mikhail Lermontov’s Ispantsy (The Spaniards), and Aleksei Brat’ and Grigorii Lin’kov’s Lesa shumiat (Yid., Di velder royshen; The Forests Rustle), in 1940, 1941, and 1947, respectively; and Belorussian GOSET performed Sholem Aleichem’s Der farkishefter shnayder (The Bewitched Tailor; 1941).

Fal’k proved to be an original set designer who combined a persuasive plastic treatment of characters’ images with effective background designs. Throughout his creative life, Fal’k remained faithful to the formal objectives he had set for himself in his early years, particularly the translation of dimensionality into the idiom of color. Because of his self-conscious and enduring interest in technical questions of expression, Soviet critics accused Fal’k of “formalism” and “political indifference.” Beginning in the 1940s and until his death, Fal’k was barred from participating in the public life of the Soviet art world and his works were not accepted for exhibition. Nevertheless, an informal circle of admirers and pupils gathered around him. Fal’k’s work thus remained deeply influential for nonconformist Soviet artists who saw in him one of the last custodians of the ideals of the Russian avant-garde.

Suggested Reading

Dmitri Sarabjanow, Robert Falk (Dresden, 1974); A. V. Shchekin-Krotova, ed., R. R. Fal’k: Besedy ob iskusstve, pis’ma, vospominaniia of khudozhnike (Moscow, 1981).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson