Socialist Worker

Unexpected Eisenstein—sketching the inspiration from revolution in Russia

An exhibition of Sergei Eisenstein’s drawings reveals some of the Soviet film maker’s power and little known aspects of his work, says Roger Huddle

Issue No. 2493

Eisenstein’s costume design for King Duncan in Macbeth, performed in 1922

Eisenstein’s costume design for King Duncan in Macbeth, performed in 1922 (Pic: ©Russian State Archives of Literature and Art, Moscow)


Sergei Eisenstein, known as the director of the most iconic films about revolution—Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October—welcomed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 enthusiastically.

He was still a student in 1918 when he enlisted in the revolutionary Red Army as an engineer.

During the Civil War against the forces that wanted to restore capitalist rule, he became involved with a small theatre group in his unit.

All kinds of literary, visual art, film and theatre groups flourished in the organisations of the revolution, in the army, in the streets and in the factories.

Later, in the early years of the workers’ state, Eisenstein became closely involved with the experimental theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold.

He also designed sets for the First Workers Theatre in Moscow.

It is from this point that this small exhibition at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design begins.

Eisenstein made the transition to film during the early 1920s.

His techniques included using individual characters to stand as models for a wider type, and to make a more general point about social movements.

He also employed montaging the narrative from various perspectives, shot at every possible angle and as close as possible.

Eisenstein believed that two or more images edited together create a third which can be greater than the sum of the parts. Through such techniques he brought a revolutionary style of film into existence.

These achivements of Eisenstein are only hinted at in the exhibition, but are there nevertheless.

Managed 

The curators have managed to show in what ways Eisenstein’s art impacted on British film makers from Laurence Olivier to Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Mark Cousins.

The most unexpected part of the exhibition for me was the number of his drawings on show, from costume designs and stage sets, to posters, and a wonderful drawing of a queue.

They are all small sketches, but quite clearly show that Eisenstein was part of the art movements developing within Europe as well as in Russia.

This is the era of cubism, futurism and expressionism.

Some drawings are so reduced in line they seem to prepare us for the minimalist experiments in art later on.

Most of the exhibition concentrates on Eisenstein’s many links with London, which are fascinating.

And it also shows the relationship between Eisenstein and the rising bureaucracy of Joseph Stalin, which Eisenstein clashed with directly.

The extracts and sketches from the two parts of Ivan the Terrible have obvious links to Stalin.

His later masterpiece Alexander Nevsky is also represented in his character sketches and film clips.

In my youth, Soviet Russia would have have found these works difficult to explain.

It has been said that Eisenstein was forced to cut all references to Leon Trotsky in his film of October—which is a bit like cutting Hamlet from Hamlet and leaving the story intact.

Give yourself some time if you are around Oxford Circus in London to see this intimate and rewarding exhibition.

Unexpected Eisenstein,
17 February to 30 April.
Gallery for Russian Arts and Design.
Little Portland Street.
London, W1W 7JB
Free entry

Celebrating Charlotte Bronte

This exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of novelist Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

It revolves around a famous portrait by her brother Branwell Bronte with Charlotte, her sisters Emily and Anne, and his own ghostly shadow in the middle.

Charlotte grew up and began writing during a time of social upheaval, and this shaped her work. Charlotte is famous for her 1847 novel Jane Eyre, which was an early exploration of issues flowing from women’s oppression as well as highlighting the impact of class.

One character says, “Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties”.

Such ideas were certainly unusual in the mid?nineteenth century.

Celebrating Charlotte Bronte
National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H 0HE.
Until 14 August
Free
npg.org.uk

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