Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Oksana Bulgakowa

Sergei Eisenstein, A Visual Universe

Introductory remarks

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein in 1922
While working on his first book, Eisenstein noted in his diary on August 5, 1929:

"It is very hard to write a book. Because each book is two-dimensional. I wanted this book to be characterized by a feature that does not fit under any circumstances into the two-dimensionality of the printing element. This demand has two sides. First it supposes that the bundle of these essays is not to be regarded successively. In any case I wished that one could perceive them all at the same time, simultaneously, because they finally represent a set of sectors, which are arranged around a general, determining point of view and aligned to different areas. On the other hand I wanted to create a spatial form that would make it possible to step from each contribution directly into another and to make apparent their interconnection... Such a synchronic manner of circulation and mutual penetration of the essays could be carried out only in the form... of a sphere. But unfortunately books were not written as spheres... I can only hope that they will be read after the method of mutual reversibility, according to a spherical method - in expectation that we will learn to write books like rotating balls. The books we have now are like soap-bubbles. Particularly on art."

The utopian idea of a spherical book has never been realized. Hypertext is perhaps the most adequate form in which to present it - because thought does not follow a linear pattern but pursues instead an unpredictable combination of associations, and it has the properties of a simultaneous presence of all ideas and forms. Each of Eisenstein's projects - his montage films, Proustian-style memoirs, and associative studies on the theory of art - shows the intention and qualities of his coveted spherical book. This applies even to his earliest work - his book of drawings.

The Russian Archive stores 5,000 drawings made by Eisenstein during his life. Among these are 20 folios and eight small books filled during his youth. One is presented here as a Web project. Studying these 150 pages, one makes a discovery: the motifs and forms sketched by the teenager graduating from high school are recognizable in the subsequent imagery and drawings of the fifty-year-old world famous film director. His circular men and angular old women, his commedia dell'arte masks and elongated plasmatic levitating figures, and his bestiary (bulls, peacocks, lions, ravens) reappear in his work at different stages: in the sets and costumes for the eccentric theatre productions and Wagnerian opera, in the physiognomic references and dynamic vertical composition of his frames, and in his series of later drawings - Mexican sketches, production sketches for Ivan the Terrible, and his erotic, nostalgic, parodistic drawings. This Web project traces these connections, as well as Eisenstein's affinity to both traditional and contemporary painting.

The sources for his first book of drawings - Grandville's man-animal, Daumier's floating forms and Greek parodies, Gulbransson's art nouveau caricature with its flowing lines, Modernist set designs - are not imitated but rather lightly stylized. They lay, in fact, "beneath" his fantastic world. The theatre of modern life is partially reflected in his bestiary. High art - icons, academy and Itinerants (1) - is an object of parody, as are postcards, comics, and illustrated covers of pulp fiction. Lines dance, figures with their plasmatic forms float, circular and angular shapes interconnect and drawings have no defined centre. Later Eisenstein would analyze these features in Tintoretto, Caravaggio, El Greco and Disney.

Eisenstein's ideas on montage were inspired by the way in which he dealt with images. When writing his first book, he conceptualized montage as the storage of visual memory. Montage is not a linear chain, where one image is put at the end of another. It creates instead an imaginative space, where a vanishing image is superimposed or covered by one that emerges. To perceive these images, the viewer is forced to forget and remember - throughout the film. To facilitate the process, the film uses old techniques from "Ars memoria," the same techniques that Eisenstein used in his first book of drawings - creating series, repeating forms, and parallelizing the recollections of distant and near shapes and figures.

(1) The realist, socially engaged painting of the Itinerants defined Russian culture of the second half of the 19th century. The Itinerants' chief purpose was to bring art to the people by means of traveling exhibition.