Eisenstein’s Legacy in Film, Psychology and Visual Arts

Eisenstein’s Legacy in Film, Psychology and Visual Arts

The Aims of the Legacy Conference

The conference coincides with Kino Klassika and GRAD’s Unexpected Eisenstein exhibition, which runs from 17th February to 30th April 2016.  It aims to provide a platform for leading Eisenstein experts from around the world to present their current research. Furthermore it initiates critical discussions about Sergei Eisenstein and his legacy in film, psychology and the visual arts.  Most importantly, the conference invites audiences to consider Eisenstein beyond his cinematic achievements.  

Anna Kolesnikova, Igor Kadyrov and Neuro-Science

Anna Kolesnikova (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III) and Igor Kadyrov (Moscow State University) give thought-provoking presentations that place Eisenstein within the neuro-scientific world of his day. They reveal just how close was his interaction with Freud’s work, and with the research of Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky. Kolesnikova rounds off her presentation with the wonderful image of Luria’s preservation of Eisenstein’s brain – with its enlarged right hemisphere. As a teaching object it is certainly an illustration that Eisenstein’s relevance reaches far beyond the film world!

Ada Ackerman and History of Art Scholarship

Ada Ackerman (NYU/CNRS Paris) speaks about her research into Eisenstein’s interaction with and use of the work of other artists in his films. She presents a fascinating array of images that both demonstrate Eisenstein’s wide art historical knowledge and illustrate how he had drawn on this in his films. The examples Ackerman uses are as wide-ranging as Eisenstein’s reinterpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream in Battleship Potemkin, of Goya’s Colossus in The Old and the New, and of Hiroshige’s Eagle Flying over Fukagama District in Ivan the Terrible.

Oksana Bulgakowa and Eisenstein as Flaneur

Oksana Bulgakowa (University of Mainz) takes us on a tour of Eisenstein’s October that shifts the focus from the film’s oft-discussed political themes to its curatorial approach to the objects in the Hermitage. Putting Eisenstein’s fascination with objects into the context of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Bulgakowa argues that October presents the artefacts less in the style of museum pieces, and rather as if they were objects in a department store, upon which the spectator gazes as a flâneur walking through the museum.

Sally Potter reads from Eisenstein’s Theoretical Writings

Similarly, Eisenstein’s substantial body of theoretical writings is discussed by many. Sally Potter quotes from them extensively in her fascinating reflections on what Eisenstein means for her as a filmmaker. Antonio Somaini (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III), whose edited volume of Eisenstein’s Notes for a General History of Cinema (with Naum Kleiman) is launched at Friday evening’s wine reception at GRAD, makes a strong case for the need for Eisenstein to be viewed seriously as a theorist in disciplines other than film studies, and alongside names such as Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer and Aby Warburg.

The Last Conversation

A particularly interesting aspect of the conference is the opportunity to see a range of filmic work inspired by or on the subject of Eisenstein. Sally Banes’s The Last Conversation (1998) documents a fascinating archaeological project of recreating Eisenstein’s only ballet – based on the final scene of Bizet’s Carmen – from drawings of choreographical figures done by Eisenstein’s student, V. Levin, Eisenstein’s skeleton score (a pastiche of themes from Bizet’s opera), and rehearsal photos. The film ties in perfectly with the conference’s overall theme of seeing Eisenstein’s identity beyond that of filmmaker.

Disgraced Monuments 

Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s Disgraced Monuments (1996) documents the destruction of countless statues and monuments of the Soviet regime after its collapse. It makes links with the similar fate of the monuments of the tsarist regime post-1917 and furthermore explores the difficult question of what the correct approach should be in such circumstances.  Rodionov, an architect interviewed in the film, expresses his strong desire that the Stalinist era should be discussed not just as a political, social or economic phenomenon, but also as a cultural one; a call that echoes very closely the conference’s theme as regards interpretation of Eisenstein’s films. Mulvey acknowledges finding Eisenstein’s October particularly interesting when she had made her film, a point which resonates strongly following Bulgakowa’s reading of October as a curatorial project.

Joan Neuberger on Sexuality in Ivan the Terrible

An extract from Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, is both beautiful to watch in itself, and also particularly interesting in light of Joan Neuberger’s (University of Texas at Austin) discussion of sexuality in Ivan the Terrible, which forms part of the presentation with which she had opened the conference the previous morning. Where Eisenstein had hoped to cast (male) Mikhail Romm as Elizabeth I in Ivan the Terrible II (Neuberger shows us some wonderful footage of Romm’s screen test), Potter’s Elizabeth I is played by Quentin Crisp.

Finally, an extract from Renny Bartlett’s biopic Eisenstein (2000) portrays the precarious political position Eisenstein had occupied throughout his life. The fact of this is probably no revelation to anyone at the conference, but after two days of exploring Eisenstein beyond his political context, it seemed appropriate that we should remember how important a factor it remains in any discussion of his work, cinematic or otherwise.

Conference Conclusions 

Towards the end of the two days, Joan Neuberger and, subsequently, Antonio Somaini summarise how the conference adds to their understanding of Eisenstein, and what they felt it had meant for the status of Eisenstein scholarship today.

Antonio Somaini and Joan Neuberger call for Inter-Disciplinary Research

Both Neuberger and Somaini comment on the drawings. For Neuberger they bring into focus just how much of Eisenstein there is for us to explore, above and beyond his films. Somaini expresses a desire that the drawings should be elevated to the same level as the films. Both comment on the place of Eisenstein’s theoretical writings. Neuberger, speaking as a historian, argues there is very little intellectual history of Russia in this period, and that she would like to see Eisenstein placed within the intellectual context of his peers. Furthermore, Somaini makes a plea for film history to enter into better dialogue with art history, philosophy and psychology, and for scholars in these fields to read Eisenstein’s theoretical writings. There is, he feels, an enormous amount of interesting interdisciplinary work to be done.

The conference establishes just how well Eisenstein, despite the circumstances in which his career evolved, managed to and create a legacy that has not only lasted through the fall of the regime under which it was made, but is still fresh, informative and fascinating today.

A Film Maker’s Message in a Bottle

A moment from Sally Potter’s reflections is an appropriate conclusion. Potter argues passionately that films come out of contexts, not out of nowhere. However, she reminds us that understanding the context in which a film was made can only help us so far in coming to understand the film itself, for it is only one of the contexts in which the film exists. Filmmaking, she says, feels like placing a message in a bottle and floating it out to sea, in the hope that it might resonate somewhere, with someone. This conference demonstrates both that there are many fascinating and fruitful directions – other than the purely political or cinematic – for Eisenstein scholarship to explore, and also just how much Eisenstein and his films continue to mean today; not just for film scholars, but for contemporary filmmakers, audiences, psychologists, art historians, historians … to name but a few. Eisenstein’s message in a bottle continues to wash ashore and to resonate with a wide range of people, in many contexts and in many places. 


Special thanks to conference organisers Maria Mileeva, Natalia Murray (The Courtauld Institute of Art) with Elena Sudakova and GRAD (Gallery for Russian arts and Design), CCRAC (Cambridge Courtauld Russian Arts Centre) and Ian Christie, Sarah Davies and Justine Waddell of Kino Klassika Foundation.

Written by Julia Sutton-Mattocks.

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