New York

Sergei Eisenstein, Untitled, n.d., colored pencil on paper, 10 5/8 × 8 1/4".

Sergei Eisenstein, Untitled, n.d., colored pencil on paper, 10 5/8 × 8 1/4".

Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein, Untitled, n.d., colored pencil on paper, 10 5/8 × 8 1/4".

Throughout his thirty-year career, the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made drawings in many different modes for many different purposes. Estimates suggest that more than five thousand images varying in size and finish—some drawn on mere scraps of ordinary paper or on stationery filched from Mexican hotels—remain in his archive or in other private and public collections. Along with filmmaking and film theory, they constitute a crucial, though largely underrated, third pillar of his artistic achievement.

Eisenstein sketched from his earliest years and was essentially self-taught. He showed his talents early on: While he was still a teenager during World War I, Russian newspapers published sharp-eyed political caricatures that issued from his pen. As a stage designer for the left-wing Proletkult Theater in post-revolutionary Moscow, he adopted the Cubo-Futurist styles of contemporaries such as Alexandra Exter, Alexander Vesnin, and the Stenberg brothers for his costume and set sketches. After he migrated into Soviet film production by the mid-1920s, he began to scribble reams of sketches to plan the look of shots before directing his cameramen to attempt them on-site. Such preparatory drawings became an increasingly crucial part of his filmmaking practice until his death in 1948.

The recent exhibition of eighty-four of Eisenstein’s drawings at Alexander Gray Associates offered viewers a rare opportunity to assess an even less-well-known dimension of the Russian master’s works in this medium. These images served no apparent function in preparing a film or stage production. For want of a better term, they are pure drawings, personal meditations that explore uncharted depths of Eisenstein’s erotically charged memories and fantasies. London-based curator Matthew Stephenson laid out groups of images selected from a larger cache of privately held materials that were related by date or theme. Some are touched by an antic sense of humor tinged with irony or incongruity reminiscent of Walt Disney’s “plasmatic” cartoons and “Silly Symphonies” that Eisenstein so admired. Others convey raunchy political commentaries far beyond the realm of polite discourse. Catholic clergy receive particularly trenchant treatment as he portrays them blessing Mexican boys, who simultaneously perform fellatio on the older men. In another image, he punishes one of the priests in the most pointed way possible: Still wearing his miter, but otherwise stark naked, the cleric is buggered by a cathedral steeple. The tone and draftsmanship are coarse but saved from vulgarity by Eisenstein’s ribaldly blasphemous humor. This is true as well of a comical series from late 1943 and early 1944 depicting the shooting of a pornographic film, complete with impossibly large, tumescent phalluses requiring makeup, frustrated directors offering instructions, and producers urging a speedy take.

Most striking are those images in which Eisenstein, a self-declared bisexual, depicts gay and lesbian couplings in a spectacular array of positions. Among their number are theatrically staged, sadomasochistic scenes, occasionally involving amputees, whips, dildos, and masks, as well as bestial relations that might be grotesque or truly disturbing if not for the abstract, incisive elegance of Eisenstein’s line, which conjures nonmimetic fantasy figures surely and rapidly, without lifting the pencil from the page.

In contrast to these weightless figures in empty spaces that barely acknowledge ground, horizon, and gravity is a series of drawings, some partially done in colored pencil and completed with cross-hatching. Made during Eisenstein’s ill-fated stay in Mexico, and among the most impressive pieces in the show, they feature complex, dynamic compositions of corridas and crucifixions, and of bulls and matadors in inverted gender roles performing astounding sex acts. The works, far different in spirit from Picasso’s contemporary sketches of bullfights, offer opportunities for foreshortenings, conceptual condensations, and free associations. The colliding principals fuse into iconographically rich, cryptic pictographs, mélanges of desire and familiar symbols whose fascination remains even if their interpretive code remains elusive.

Stuart Liebman