Bringing Sergei (back) to London

This post was contributed by Ian Christie, Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck’s Department of Film Media and Cultural Studies. Prof Christie has curated a new exhibition, Unexpected Eisenstein, organised by Kino Klassika Foundation and GRAD London. The exhibition which runs until 30 April at GRAD, sheds new light on the life and achievements of pioneering Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Here, Prof Christie gives an insight into the formation of his new exhibition.

EisensteinHeartbreakHouse2Every biography of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein will tell you that he visited Britain during his sole extended journey to the outside world in 1929-32. But few give much detail about this brief six-week visit, other than noting that it allowed him to see the film that had made him famous, or notorious, The Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by the rousing music score that had made such an impact in Germany three years earlier.

Sad to report, Eisenstein was not impressed. He found Edmund Meisel’s score too dominating, and he was even less happy about the accompanying film, John Grierson’s Drifters, which he thought had stolen quite a lot from him. But such disappointments didn’t prevent him from making the most of a visit to the land he had known from childhood, through reading all the juvenile classics and much else.

The more I thought about this visit, I realised we could make it be basis of an exhibition of Eisenstein’s extraordinary drawings, long planned as a joint project between GRAD Gallery, specialising in Russian art and design, and the Kino Klassika Foundation, set up to foster awareness of Russian cinema’s rich history.

So our exhibition traces what had made Eisenstein so famous by the age of thirty; what impact he had on Britain, then and since; and how memories and enthusiasms connected with England stayed with him, influencing his own work back in Stalin’s Russia. When I was in Moscow last year to select work from the archives, I realised that following this thread was actually leading me in new and surprising directions, even after have already mounted a big Eisenstein exhibition back in the 1980s – which led to us deciding to call the show ‘Unexpected Eisenstein’.

Although he never made a straight Shakespeare adaptation, motifs from the plays – especially Macbeth – run through a surprising amount of his work, especially the scandalously confessional ‘Death of Duncan’ drawings he made in Mexico soon after the visit to England. Likewise, he never filmed George Bernard Shaw, despite Shaw giving him the rights to Arms and the Man, but he made stage designs for Shaw’s ‘fantasia in the Russian manner’, Heartbreak House.

Perhaps most intriguing of all was a set of drawings we found in the Russian State Archive for an episode of Ivan the Terrible (1944) that was never filmed. This would have shown the first Tsar paying hopeful court to Elizabeth I of England through his ambassador. Eisenstein got as far as screen-testing his fellow-director Mikhail Romm as Elizabeth – which seems like an eerie anticipation of Sally Potter having Quentin Crisp play Elizabeth in her time-traveling fantasy Orlando (1992). Needless to say, that idea never got past Stalin’s deep suspicion of where his star director was taking Ivan, which led to its second part being firmly banned until after the deaths of both the director and the dictator.

But with the drawings in our exhibition, and clips from both Ivan and Orlando playing, I hope we have created a space for visitors to speculate and enter into Eisenstein’s extraordinary, often mischievous, imagination.

MarkCousins1Some of these must remain open to speculation. Why did Eisenstein make a series of drawings of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine in the mid-1940s, writing ‘London’ on one of these? Was he thinking of their scandalous elopement from Paris to London in 1873, when they lived together in Royal College Street in Camden? The house has since acquired a plaque, but surely it was known to few in 1929?

Some other points of contact are better documented. Everyone interested in the future of film want to meet Eisenstein, and he found himself giving lectures in a room above Foyles’ bookshop to an audience that included many future leaders of the documentary film movement. He even made a guest appearance in the Film Society’s group film, playing a London bobby with obvious relish. He visited the Tower of London – there’s a tourist photo of him posing with a Beefeater – and he went to Cambridge University. Memories of dining at Trinity College and attending a student party apparently stayed with him sufficiently to help shape scenes in Ivan the Terrible, as did his trips to Windsor Castle and Eton College.

Having intuitively structured the exhibition around ‘Eisenstein and England’, I realised that I was perhaps unconsciously following several current trends in historical research. The biographical thread has revealed intriguing aspects of Eisenstein’s complex personality and links across his wide-ranging interests. And like all micro-histories, this snapshot of a month in 1929 turns out to stand at the centre of a web of themes that are still resonating today. Our show finishes with a specially-made short film by Mark Cousins that explores Eisenstein’s longstanding fascination with D. H. Lawrence, against the background of contemporary Moscow.

Unexpected Eisenstein runs at GRAD Gallery, 3-4 Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JB until April 30. Closed Mondays, free admission.

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