'Lady in lilac', portrait of E.S. Potechina signed in Cyrillic (verso) oil on canvas 89 x 79cm (35 1/16 x 31 1/8in).
PROVENANCE Collection of A.F. Chudnovsky, Leningrad Collection of S.A. Shuster and E.V. Kryukova, St. Petersburg
EXHIBITED St. Petersburg, Jack of Diamonds, 1913 (according to the artist's diary) Moscow, State Tretyakov Gallery, R. Falk, 1924, No. 24 (as Woman by a table) Leningrad, Portraiture in Russian painting from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, 1975, No. 226 (erroneously dated '1915') Helsinki, Time of Change, 1988, No. 86 Leningrad, Russian art from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century, from private collections in Leningrad, 1988, page 47 as Portrait of E.S. Potechina (erroneously dated '1915') Milan, Palazzo Reale, Avanguardia russa dalle collezioni private sovietiche, 1904-1934 (cat. Bergamo, 1988, No. 28, p.133 (erroneously dated '1917') Valencia, Vanguardismo Ruso de colecciones privadas. 1900-1935, Palacio del Marces de Campo, Museo de la Ciudad, 1991 (erroneously dated '1917')
LITERATURE Oeuvre, 1969, no. 7, b/w illustration p.22 (as Lady in Lilac, portrait of E.S. Potechina, erroneously dated '1917') Avanguardia russa dalle collezioni private sovietiche origini e percorso 1900-1934, Bergamo, 1988, colour illustration no. 28 p.56 D.V. Sarabyanov & Y.V. Didenko, Complete catalogue raisonné of the work of Robert Falk, Gallery Elysium, Moscow, 2006, no. 417 illustrated, p. 324
Aleksander Blok, in his speech 'On the Purpose of the Poet' given just before his death in 1921, said: 'Just for fun, I would like to declare three simple truths: there are no special categories of art; it is wrong to call by the name of art something which does not merit this appellation; in order to make a work of art, it is essential to have the ability to do so.' This 'ability to do so' was innate to Robert Falk. It distinguished him from his Jack of Diamonds colleagues, who were always painters but rarely artists. It is also probably why he felt the need to refer to music when he was trying to explain painting. His works make categories obsolete and their ingrained translatability dissolves the boundaries between disciplines.
This musical understanding of reality informed his artistic mission, which Shchekina-Krotova formulated as 'to set free the linear rhythms [of concrete reality]' (John E. Bowlt, Robert Falk by Dmitry Sarabjanow, in 'Russian Reviews', Vol.35, No.1, January, 1976, p.119). He abandons the narrative aspect of art and concentrates on the rhythms and rhymes of pictorial world. The colour in his works is always much more than just a means of expression, it becomes the subject and essence of his art. He was preoccupied with solving problems of 'the actual colour' and 'the actual light' (Bowlt, ibid. p.120). The dynamism of colours, movement of shadows, attempts to convey energy and harmony of colourful masses forced Falk to look for musical analogies when he was explaining his goals. 'However fascinating may be the nuances, their richness and melodious quality,' he said 'the most fundamental thing is still the real relationship of large masses. You cannot tune a half-tone before you find its place in the correct octave. The octave comes first' (Oleg Prokofiev, Robert Falk (1886 1958) as a Teacher of Painting, in 'Leonardo', Vol. 9, No.4, Autumn 1976, p.324).
The art of portraiture constitutes a very important part of Falk's legacy. During the early years of his creativity he was learning how to transfer his close relationship with 'the other' onto the canvas. Falk was always eager to get to know his models. While they were sitting for him he learned about their habits and their families, he was genially interested in their lives, gradually discovering their character. Of course, with Elizaveta Sergeevna Potechina, who was his first wife, he had a much more intimate connection. She also was a painter, studied at the Moscow school of art and took part in The Jack of Diamonds exhibitions. Coming from an old aristocratic family she had to face the disapproval of her parents when marrying Falk. During the years they spent together she became his most favoured model. If one were to revisit the vast range of her portraits one would find her image in constant emotional permutations, the tiniest aspects of which were picked up and conveyed by the artist. Yet it seems, she always remained an enigma to him, and this unsolved mystery binds all these portraits together. Following these works one can see the artist's attempts to understand the reason for her sadness or alienation or indulgence in earnest prayer. '[Through these works] the state of the other was becoming his own, or better to say, common for both of them' (Dmitry V. Sarabjanow, Art of Robert Falk, in 'Art of Robert Falk: Full Catalogue of Works', ComputerPress, 2006, p.44). These portraits are windows into their relationship, but also at that time, these works, perhaps, enabled the most unique and intimate way of communication within his family.
The colours that he used for Elizaveta Sergeevna's portraits are dramatically different. It is either a bright red, as in Liza in the Chair, 1909, or soft pink in combination with light-green, as in Liza in Pink, 1909, or light blue in Liza in a Blue Shawl, 1909. It is almost as if the artist was searching for the language with which to communicate her state of being. But only in Lady in Lilac we see not one dominant colour, but rather colours in a harmonious interplay with each other. Of the three portraits mentioned above, Elizaveta Sergeevna is depicted with a slightly tilted face averting her gaze. She seems withdrawn and while she allows the viewer to see her, she does not communicate back. The situation is different with Lady in Lilac, where her gaze is directed onto us, and we no longer feel that she is merely posing, but rather that she is also actively engaged in the process of looking. Here, she retains her calm and collected demeanour, yet something about her has changed. We see her inquisitive gaze and we are called upon to respond to it.
In Lady in Lilac there are no longer motives of primitivism that occupied the artist during this period. Apart from the obvious richness of colours that almost immediately cast the viewer into the vortex of emotional responses, this painting eliminates the usual juxtaposition between the sitter and her background. Here Falk already recognizes the importance of 'empty' spaces, he becomes interested in their outline and colour. The portrait becomes a rhythmical play of colourful masses that follow the logic of some unique harmony the only possible scenario for their coexistence. He depicts the very happening of forms and colours on the canvas.
The drawing that he creates for the portrait looks more like a map. He is mapping the essential areas where colours will appear. While he was orchestrating the masses of colours for Lady in Lilac the most detailed element was the turban that later materialised on the canvas as a dark almost amorphous cloud, which in combination with the darkness of the hair, frames the face. The fragility of the face comes forth. While the face is supposed to be the focal point of the portrait it does not dominate the painting, but instead constitutes an organic part of the whole. Yet, its importance is not undermined. The dynamic play of shadows on the face performs a fascinating metamorphosis. The right side of her face is glowing, while the left side is sinking into the darkness. Elizaveta Sergeevna was only thirty when this portrait was created, and yet, this quite young woman appears to us almost more mature than her age. It is as if she is yielding to some bigger force. Her face mirrors the inevitable that was best described by the lines of Osip Madelshtam:
More tender than tender Is your face, Whiter than white Is your hand, From the whole world You are distant, And everything in you Is from the inevitable.
From the inevitable Is your sorrow, And the fingers of your hand Which stay warm, And the quiet sound Of your cheerful Speeches, And the distant look Of your eyes.
[O. Mandelshtam, 1909]
Her face conveys the beauty of the perishable and the fragile, of life itself during the moments when we are aware of it, resisting to be consumed by endless requirements of mundane. The sobriety and strictness, refusal to conform to the canons of female beauty, the sense of determination that comes from within all of it becomes apparent and constitutes the character of the sitter. The portrait has this unique essence that Falk explained, when saying that 'the beauty is that which has been expressed through character. Without this it is impossible to speak of harmony.' (Prokofiev, op. cit., p.324)