The erotic humor of Sergei Eisenstein


Alexander Gray Associates has a show on called Sergei Eisenstein drawings 1931-1948 (closes February 11). The objective title conceals a revelation: the collection of drawings – many of them, in America for the first time – consists almost entirely of humoristic sketches of (literally) graphic sexual nature.

The downplaying of this sensational fait divers masks a history of oppression: while humor had been dramatically drained from the director’s work since the social caricatures in Strike (1925), forcing a more monolithic tone to his body of work, the drawings have been long kept hidden by heirs, in order to “preserve” the artist’s reputation. Some of them have ended up in books in the past few years, but the selection of over 80 works on display at AGA reveals a whole different facet of the artist that provides not only contrast but also adds significant complexity to one of the most interesting and decisive artists of the 20th century.

What is materialized in the drawings is rarer than it might seem: Eisenstein enjoying an unrestrained freedom of imagination. Such freedom results in an explosion of thematic irreverence that transcends the director’s known bisexuality, embracing bestiality, anti-clerical iconography, imperialism, slavery, sarcastic art criticism (as seen in the picture selected to illustrate this post), poetic symbolism and the politics of gender, sexuality and race.

The complexity of subject is made more striking by the simplicity of form: while the drawings show an eclecticism of style – from Gauguin to Picasso to Heckel to Amerindian art – they all share a remarkable restraint in trace and color, often working with simple lines and a strictly binary palette, foreseeing his use of color in the part 2 of Ivan, the Terrible (1946, but not released until 1958). The combination of such basic approach to form – one of the short series, especially centered around representations of men and women, relies mostly on blue and red, and the normative use of the colors as conventions (men as blue; women as red) add interesting meanings to drawings where gender is either absent or purposefully concealed – with a cartoonish humor, sometimes underlined by captions, is challenged from within by the explosive nature of what’s being represented and how it reflects the author’s vision on themes his work and the mythology around the author have irresponsibly subsumed as mere formal value.

More than the films, the drawings witness an artist who’s generally suspicious, or even daringly critical, of any kind of programmatic certainty – a feeling that could only be intuited from the gaps of his film work – and who was eager to experiment art and life with a lack of restraint that history (both public and personal) failed to accommodate. The erotic drawings are, therefore, Eisenstein at his most political.