Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein, Untitled, 1942. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Sergei Eisenstein, Untitled, 1942. Courtesy: Alexander Gray Associates, New York

A solo presentation of rare, erotic drawings by Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein (b. 1898—d.1948) comprised of never before exhibited works. Arranged in groupings that demonstrate a diversity of content, these bitingly humorous, intimately scaled drawings of verboten sex acts display the artist's private inner workings during a time of state-run censorship and artistic control.

Eisenstein began the erotic drawings in 1931 during a trip to Mexico to film ¡Que Viva México!. Central to these drawings was Eisenstein's repressed bisexuality and interest in the “dynamic unity of opposites.” Recounting the freedom afforded during his travels away from surveillance under Stalin's regime, in 1946 Eisenstein wrote, “it was in Mexico that my drawing underwent an internal catharsis, striving for mathematical abstraction and purity of line. The effect was considerably enhanced when this ... ‘intellectualized’ line was used for drawing sensual relationships between human figures.” Much like his revolutionary montage technique in film, his drawings facilitate deviant narratives through minimal mark-making, inspired by diverse influences including Diego Rivera, George Grosz, Jean Cocteau, and Walt Disney. Today the relevance of this work is strikingly clear with a world-wide increase in censorship of visual expression.

A renowned Soviet director and film montage innovator, Sergei Eisenstein (b.1898—d. 1948) also wrote extensively on film theory and made upwards of 5,000 drawings throughout his life. He trained as an architect and engineer before pursuing a career in theater and film. He first came to prominence in the 1920s with his silent films, including the celebrated 1925 masterwork Battleship Potemkin. Although he received international attention and praise for this and other films, at home, his commitment to structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movement, and montage brought him widespread condemnation. Attacked for his unwillingness to strictly adhere to the tenets of socialist realism, he was forced to publicly renounce his own cinematic vision.

Seeking to escape this criticism, in 1928 Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a two year tour of Europe. In 1930, he accepted a contract with Paramount Pictures to make a film. In Hollywood, he befriended celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and was fascinated by the “omni-appeal” of Walt Disney; however, he failed to win over Paramount executives. Faced with growing anti-communist sentiment, the studio and Eisenstein agreed to part ways. After leaving the US, Eisenstein traveled to Mexico, where he was granted permission from the USSR to produce a film, the never fully realized epic ¡Que Viva Mexico!. In Mexico, he met artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Impressed by their work and Mexican culture, Eisenstein termed his films “moving frescoes.” (As historian Joan Neuberger notes, during his time in Mexico, “Eisenstein confirmed that drawing was no less important in his work as an artist than film-making and theory writing.”) After censure from Joseph Stalin, who feared the director had become a defector, he was forced to leave Mexico and abandon the film.

Upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1932, Eisenstein was treated with suspicion because of his long sojourn in the West. In 1938, he staged a comeback with the critically acclaimed biopic Alexander Nevsky. The film ultimately won the director the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. Building on this success, in 1944 he produced Ivan The Terrible, Part I, which presented the tsar as a national hero and received Stalin’s approval. However, its sequel was roundly criticized by authorities. As a result, all footage from the third film, Ivan The Terrible, Part III, was confiscated and mostly destroyed.

Under increasing professional pressure, in 1946 Eisenstein suffered from a heart attack and spent much of the following year recovering. Still weakened from this episode, on February 11, 1948, he died from a second attack. Despite Eisenstein’s early death at 50, his singular approach to cinematography continues to influence filmmakers to this day.