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The Director's Eye: Drawings and Photographs by European Film-makers

Exhibition organised and toured by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford

28 Sep – 26 Oct 1996

Exhibition review
Kevin Jackson, The Independent, Sunday 25 February 1996

Most film buffs will not associate Sergei Eisenstein with farting jokes, jokes about oversize penises, or indeed with lavatory humour in any of its forms. But the optical proof is beyond dispute: sometime around 1930, the director of Battleship Potemkin and October saw fit to cut out a newspaper story headlined “Antique Roman Organ Found”, paste it to a scrap of paper and scrawl around it a knockabout cartoon depicting a dirty old Roman who has snapped off his gigantic virile member at the root and is displaying it as gleefully as if it were Trajan’s column. Lower down, Eisenstein stuck a paragraph from the same story sub-headed “Music of the Spheres” and decorated it with a pair of trumpeting buttocks.

More surprising still are the wildly uncensored doodles Eisenstein was producing at roughly the same time. One shows a naked woman, curved into a half-moon with monstrous flowers sprouting from her pudenda; another a neatly coiffured male angel with a bird’s head for genitals. These little cartoons were never meant for public exhibition – they were jotted down on cheap bits of paper, sometimes sent as letters to friends – but that is not to say they are not worth exhibiting, as Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art has now chosen to do for “The Director’s Eye”, the first of two shows marking the centenary of British cinema. As evidence of a restless, febrile temperament, they are at once warmer and weirder than his canonical films; as graphic expressions, they hint at the kind of strange erotic images Eisenstein might have brought to the screen had he died later and Stalin sooner.

Few of the exhibits here are as intimate or as disconcerting as Eisenstein’s doodles, but most of them were similarly unassuming in origin. In reconstructing a few of the many, often recondite links between European art and European cinema, the show’s co-curators Ian Christie and David Elliot have concentrated on the sketches, paintings and photographs that tend to foam out in the wake of movies as they move from page to screen. Pace the title, the eyes which are celebrated here belong as often to production or costume designers as to directors: Paul Leni’s sketches for films by Lubitsch; John Armstrong’s costume drawings for the British sci-fi epic Things to Come; John Beckman’s tightly plotted set-plans for Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.

What the exhibition really brings home, though, is how seldom such working sketches could ever have been merely functional in intent: again and again, you’re struck by the energetic excess of detail in, say, William Kellner’s sombre drawings for The Lavender Hill Mob, or – probably the most extraordinary pieces of their kind here – Alexandre Benois’s brooding watercolours of the cavernous interiors for Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Benois’s devotion to the assignment is not only manifest in the intricacy of his work but in the angry phrase he scrawled across the back of one after viewing Gance’s completed film: “This scene was ruined by the so-called demands of cinema!”

The artist-directors themselves are represented in a variety of media: Cocteau and Bunuel/Dali by familiar stills from Le Sang d’un Poete and Un Chien Andalou, Man Ray by a “Rayogram” sequence from Le Retour a la Raison, and the abstract film-maker Len Lye by a collection of the strips of celluloid onto which he would paint coloured patterns. Strictly speaking, Lye was a New Zealander and thus outside the show’s European remit, but he sneaks in because so much of his work was done here; similarly, drawings by the Disney Studios and a sequence of Wile E Coyote sketches by the great Chuck Jones are allowed to slip through EU customs since it was the French surrealists who first sounded their artistic merits. Only a sourpuss would object.

For the rest, there is a generous helping of Powell & Pressburger material, including a few (more than faintly kitsch) production paintings for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann by Hein Heckroth, and plenty of Powell’s own, often very good photographs: the funniest image in the exhibition shows David Niven, armed with bow and arrow, hurling himself sideways into a swimming pool clad only in trunks, deerstalker and a mad grin. The exhibition closes with a strong representation of paintings, collages and the like by recent British and honorary British artist-directors – Derek Jarman, Bill Douglas, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and Alan Parker – as well as predictably sexy cartoons by Federico Fellini, and Satyajit Ray’s delicately uncanny drawing of an alien’s head for the sci-fi film he never made.