Posted on:Monday 15th June, 2020
Researching Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian filmmaker, can take you to some unlikely places. However, many may be surprised to learn that Eisenstein showed a particular fascination with Rimbaud and Verlaine and the time they spent living as lovers in Royal College Street in London. In fact, it is a story that takes us into the heart of the director’s own creative endeavours and sexual identity.
Eisenstein made only two journeys abroad in his short life, although the second of these was something of an epic. Crossing Western Europe at the end of 1929, he sailed for America, where he lived for six frustratingly unproductive months in Hollywood, before heading to Mexico. Here he would spend over a year, shooting large quantities of film for what he hoped would be a great fresco of Mexican culture and history.
That film was never made – at least not by Eisenstein. Having promised to send the footage for him to edit back in Moscow, his sponsor, the novelist Upton Sinclair, decided instead to sell it to Hollywood hacks, to be turned into a series of short travel films. At least three attempts have been made over the years to realise Eisenstein’s intentions, all somewhat unconvincing. But something else happened in Mexico. Eisenstein returned to his childhood passion for drawing.
The torrent of drawings he made on hotel notepaper, and on any scraps to hand, were very different from the animal stories and anecdotes he had drawn as a child in Riga and later St Petersburg. Their imagery was often scandalous: madonnas were luridly coupled with matadors, and when Eisenstein reached into his large cultural repertoire, a scene such as the Macbeths’ murder of King Duncan could yield thirty or more elegant and erotic variations. Think Aubrey Beardsley crossed with Picasso: Eisenstein specialised in what he called ‘closed-line’ monochrome drawings, sometimes accented with a splash of colour.
Getting the vast number of drawings he had accumulated back to Russia nearly caused a diplomatic scandal, when their lurid contents were seen. Yet the discovery that this most famous of all filmmakers – his Battleship Potemkin (1926) was fresh in many minds, and still widely banned – was also a draughtsman led to a small-gallery exhibition as he passed through New York in 1931. And Eisenstein remained proud of that until the end of his life.
By now you’re wondering: what has this to do with Rimbaud or Verlaine? For that, we have to follow Eisenstein back to Russia, where he found Stalin tightening his grip on every aspect of Soviet society. Amid humiliations and snubs, despite his official status, Eisenstein increasingly took refuge in drawing as a kind of personal diary. His drawings remained as defiantly provocative and uncensored as in Mexico, with one strand consisting of what might be termed ‘souvenirs de voyage’. When war with Nazi Germany finally arrived in 1941, Eisenstein found himself planning a complex period drama about the sixteenth-century tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Stalin was keen that his greatest filmmaker should portray the cruel Ivan IV in a favourable light, as a precursor of his own tyrannical rule. During the German advance, film production had been moved from Moscow to distant Alma-Ata, capital of the far-Eastern Kazakh Republic. Here Eisenstein worked through long nights to the point of exhaustion, finally finishing Part One of his ambitious film back in a ruined Moscow in October 1944.
Fortunately, Stalin was impressed by Eisenstein’s treatment of his distant role model, at least in this first stretch of the tsar’s career, when he imposes his will on the rebellious boyar nobility. (The second part, which Eisenstein completed during 1945, was immediately banned, and remained unseen until 1957). For many, within the Soviet Union and abroad, this proved a challenging film: austere, hieratic, with its byzantine architecture shrouded in shadows. But what was Eisenstein doing in his spare time? Thanks to his habit of dating almost every drawing – and an astonishing number of these being kept and now starting to be seen - we discover that during December 1944, the month during which his risky gamble was being weighed in the balance, he was making a series of drawings about the climax of Rimbaud and Verlaine’s tumultuous relationship. And four months later, on the brink of starting work on the even riskier Part Two of Ivan the Terrible, he would make even more drawings, specifically of Rimbaud.
Why Rimbaud and Verlaine, at this critical juncture in his career? From the labyrinthine memoirs that Eisenstein started to assemble in 1946, while recovering from a serious heart attack brought on by overwork on Ivan the Terrible, we know that his mind worked simultaneously on many levels. Although he professed to dislike Proust, there is a kind of ‘art of memory’ at work in the memoirs, zig-zagging through sights and encounters stored from his travels. In a chapter titled ‘Bookshops’, this obsessive bibliophile recalls Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which had published Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he revered. And in the same sentence, he mentions ‘a miniscule shop on the embankment [that] was a repository for editions of Verlaine’, adding with obvious relish, ‘There you could find anything by Verlaine, even the banned Hombres, which was sold there under the counter…quite openly’.
A thread running through the memoirs is undoubtedly his attraction to writing that had been banned, usually on grounds of alleged obscenity. He recalled buying D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then only available in an edition printed in Italy, adding that when he met André Malraux in Paris the latter was writing a preface for the French edition. Later, he would become a passionate admirer of Lawrence, collecting as much of his work as he could, even during the 1930s, under Stalin’s puritanical regime. He was also known among friends and colleagues as a connoisseur of dirty jokes and sexually explicit slang, in at least four languages.
Despite these traits, there seems to have been a certain innocence about Eisenstein; and the orientation of his own sexuality remains a subject of debate among scholars.
From the Mexican drawings, and in particular a letter he sent from Mexico to his ‘official’ wife in Moscow, Pera Attasheva, it seems likely that he had a profound homosexual experience in Mexico. Bisexuality is also a recurring theme in his later theoretical writings, drawing on anthropology and psychology. And we know he consulted the pioneer German sexologist and defender of homosexuality, Magnus Hirschfeld, when in Berlin, as well as collecting books by another early advocate of gay rights, Havelock Ellis.
Is this enough to explain why Eisenstein’s thoughts should turn to Rimbaud and Verlaine’s notorious elopement to London? It may be significant that two other surviving drawings from December 1944 show Nijinsky and Diaghilev, supposedly also linked by a troubled gay relationship. In one, titled ‘The Perfect Tragedy. Evocation of Nijinsky’ (in English: Eisenstein’s titles were in a variety of languages), a faun-like Nijinsky looms in front of the top-hatted Diaghilev, while in the other their scale is reversed, with a jowly Diaghilev labelled ‘thug sketch’ [croque voyou].
Drawings from the two series: 'Rimbaud à Londres' (1945) and 'Rimbaud et Verlaine'
But what of the Rimbaud and Verlaine drawings themselves? The first four are unusually narrative, almost as if Eisenstein was mapping out a storyboard, as he had often done while teaching at the Moscow film school. In the recent Eisenstein on Paper book of drawings, the labelled number one, ‘L’arrivée de Rimbaud’, shows a stern, heavily shaded figure sitting alone on a sofa, with one leg raised rather provocatively. Next comes ‘Le coup de feu de Bruxelles’, with Rimbaud dominating the foreground, one hand outlined in red, and a crumpled figure behind, gun in one hand and the other pressed to his head. Number three, ‘Après coup’, has a woman by a bedside, presumably Verlaine’s mother, with two figures in the background who may be the police that were summoned after Verlaine wounded Rimbaud. The fourth in this set has been titled ‘Departure of Rimbaud’. A saddened or contrite figure on the left, presumably Verlaine, is boldly edged in red, while a semi-naked figure on the right has been cross-hatched in red, as if cancelled. The same sheet has a fierce Japanese-style mask, possibly unrelated to the Brussels scenario, since Eisenstein would show an oriental mask in the ‘Dance of the Oprichniki’ sequence that ends Part Two of Ivan. Or it might be a comment on the end of the poets’ relationship.
Intriguingly for the occasion of this blog, the second group is titled ‘Rimbaud à Londres’, and consists of a series of frankly seductive studies of a semi-naked elfin youth. If we follow the pencil numbering, the series may have run to eleven or more, although only four are reproduced in the Thames & Hudson book. These are all dated 21 April 1945, belonging to one of the obsessive outpourings that Eisenstein had started producing in Mexico. Unmistakably, they’re variations on the theme of seduction. Eisenstein’s Rimbaud smiles cheekily from a pillow; he invites the viewer to share his bed; he washes at a basin, with trousers slipping suggestively from his hips. And in number 11, he smoulders from beneath a rakish hat, with one hand visible, perhaps prophetically coloured red.
Questions certainly abound, most of them only answerable with speculation. Perhaps the simplest is what might have inspired the ‘smouldering’ portrait? The only images I know of Rimbaud wearing a hat are two drawings, one by Verlaine, dating from 1872, and the other by Félix Régamey, which showed Verlaine and Rimbaud ‘in a London street’, with the convenient marker of a British Bobby in the background. Had either of these been published in a book that Eisenstein might have had in 1945, such as the first edition of Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud biography? Yet another drawing, not reproduced in the book, and suggestively titled ‘Les chattes, à Verlaine’, shows the pair evidently in love, as they were during much of their time in London.
Might Eisenstein have visited the scene of their turbulent affair? During the five weeks he spent in Britain in November 1929, en route to France and ultimately America, he visited Eton and Cambridge, both of which made a strong impression, and even influenced the settings of Ivan the Terrible. He attended the first ‘proper’ British screening of The Battleship Potemkin, technically a private one given by London’s fashionable Film Society. Among many celebrities, he met George Bernard Shaw, and lectured to the nucleus of Britain’s 1930s documentary film movement in a room above Foyle’s bookshop. And he explored London, guided by Jacob Isaacs, then a left-leaning lecturer in English literature at Kings College.
We know they visited the Tower of London together, and Whitechapel, whose narrow streets Eisenstein would recall in the memoirs. Could they also have gone to Royal College Street, long before any plaque recorded the lodging of Rimbaud and Verlaine, or talked about the pair when exploring Soho? One of Jacobs’ many books, The Background of Modern Poetry (1951) mentions his own discovery Rimbaud and Verlaine from Arthur Symons’ influential book on French Symbolism. Sadly, no one seems to have interviewed Jacobs about what they talked about before his death in 1973.
We’ll never know with any certainty what brought ‘Rimbaud in London’ so vividly into Eisenstein’s mind before he plunged into the conclusion of ‘this thing of Darkness’, as Joan Neuberger titled her marvellous recent book about the making of Ivan the Terrible. Among the many taboos broached in the film’s second part was a number of implied gay relationships. Eisenstein was certainly thinking about Nijinsky, and one of his most celebrated roles, as the Faun in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which might have created an association with his elfin image of Rimbaud. Or, in the final weeks of the war that had brought Britain and the USSR into a short-lived alliance, he might have been reminiscing about a scandalous discovery during that visit to London fifteen years earlier.
Ian Christie is a film historian, broadcaster and curator, Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London. He is currently co-editing The Eisenstein Universe with Julia Vassilieva, to appear shortly from Bloomsbury.
References and sources
Eisenstein on Paper: Graphic Works by the Master of Film, Thames & Hudson, 2017
Beyond the Stars: the Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, BFI Publishing/Seagull Books, 1995
Catalogue of the 2016 Unexpected Eisenstein exhibition at GRAD Gallery, London https://simplebooklet.com/8U8Bac6myLQNASv87sjyIY#page=0
Ian Christie, ‘Sightseeing with Sergei Eisenstein’, The Guardian, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/13/from-battleship-potemkin-to-baker-street-sightseeing-with-sergei-eisenstein
Ian Christie, ‘Censorship, Culture and Codpieces: Eisenstein’s influence in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s’, Eisenstein at 100: A Reconsideration, Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, Cornell University Press, 2019