In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico
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In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico

by Masha Salazkina

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During the 1920s and ’30s, Mexico attracted an international roster of artists and intellectuals—including Orson Welles, Katherine Anne Porter, and Leon Trotsky—who were drawn to the heady tumult engendered by battling cultural ideologies in an emerging center for the avant-garde. Against the backdrop of this cosmopolitan milieu, In Excess


During the 1920s and ’30s, Mexico attracted an international roster of artists and intellectuals—including Orson Welles, Katherine Anne Porter, and Leon Trotsky—who were drawn to the heady tumult engendered by battling cultural ideologies in an emerging center for the avant-garde. Against the backdrop of this cosmopolitan milieu, In Excess reconstructs the years that the renowned Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein spent in the country to work on his controversial film ¡Que Viva Mexico!

            Illuminating the inextricability of Eisenstein’s oeuvre from the global cultures of modernity and film, Masha Salazkina situates this unfinished project within the twin contexts of postrevolutionary Mexico and the ideas of such contemporaneous thinkers as Walter Benjamin. In doing so, Salazkina explains how Eisenstein’s engagement with Mexican mythology, politics, and art deeply influenced his ideas, particularly about sexuality. She also uncovers the role Eisenstein’s bisexuality played in his creative thinking and identifies his use of the baroque as an important turn toward excess and hybrid forms. Beautifully illustrated with rare photographs, In Excess provides the most complete genealogy available of major shifts in this modern master’s theories and aesthetics.

Editorial Reviews


"Salazkina links Eisenstein's ambitious portrait of a country still in the throes of its own revolution both to the regime's dynamic cultural politics and to visions of Mexico fostered by British and American expatriates like D. H. Lawrence and Anita Brenner. She draws on Marxist authors, e. g., Walter Benjamin, to highlight useful aspects of Eisenstein's method in Que Viva Mexico! and shows how many of Eisenstein's later theoretical ideas, for example about 'protoplasm' and 'bisex,' originated in his yearlong sojourn in Mexico. The excellent bibliography and candid production photos add to this impressive work."

Necessary reading for students of Eisenstein and of the arts in revolutionary Mexico.

— Tom Aiken

Charles Musser
Masha Salazkina’s brilliantly researched and interpretive study brings the never completed¡Que VivaMexico!to the center of Eisenstein’s work both as a filmmaker and theorist. Examining the rich cultural life ofMexicoin which Eisenstein was operating, Salazkina lays out the three-sided circulation of people, artworks, and ideas amongRussia, theUnited States, andMexicoin which Eisenstein actively participated. Salazkina enriches this achievement by showing the prominent roles of women such as Soviet ambassador to Mexico Alexandra Kollontai, cultural impresario Anita Brenner, writer Katherine Anne Porter, and artists Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo. To Eisenstein’s male-centered world, she counterposes this one and in the process unveils previously unacknowledged aspects of Eisenstein’s theories of sexuality (and sexual experiences) in what must be seen as a breath-taking tour de force.

Yuri Tsivian
“An extraordinary work by an expert young scholar, In Excess throws new light on Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, changes dramatically our picture of the famous director’s life and work, and offers a unique glimpse into the culture, art, and mentality of postrevolutionary Mexico.”

Philip Rosen
In Excess is a unique contribution that puts forth a significant argument. Two elements in Masha Salazkina’s approach to Eisenstein—emphases on the transnational and on sexuality—make this argument especially intriguing. Showing that Mexican politics and Mexican motifs were transnational aesthetic crossroads of the period, Salazkina illuminates Eisenstein’s appropriation of Mexican politicized art. She also makes a strong case that gender and especially the figurative displacement of woman were central to Eisenstein’s imagery and conception of the Mexican film. She shows how this film and his time in Mexico were fundamental to the development of Eisenstein’s later theory.”

TLS - Tom Aiken
"Necessary reading for students of Eisenstein and of the arts in revolutionary Mexico."

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Cinema and Modernity Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico
By masha salazkina


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73414-9

Chapter One



Nearly lost beneath the wall's surface, luminous next to bald white plaster, unfinished and empty, one perceives it there amidst these scratched and mutilated walls and fading colors—a coffin of intense aquamarine. We know these painted coffins from the engravings of Posada. Our movie screen knows something similar. The mourning brown faces of workers burying a comrade, the coffin stretches through the surface in a tragic crack in the silent conflict between pain and anger.... The conflict on the wall is a paroxysm of despair, wanting to bust into sobs—and frozen in a synthesis on the wall. —SERGEI EISENSTEIN, Memuary

This chapter will proceed through a number of steps to embed Eisenstein's film project in the cultural situation of Mexico at that time. It begins by addressing the theme of origins in relation to ¡Que Viva México!—the origins of the film itself and its various conceptions, and the way that the mythological origins of Mexico were created and developed in a postrevolutionary Mexican discourse that was heavily influenced by the contemporary developments in anthropology and archeology. Placing the "Prologue" of the film in dialogue with such key figures of Mexican postrevolutionary culture as Jose Vasconcelos, Roberto Montenegro, and Adolfo Best Maugard, this chapter will explore the way Eisenstein's use of the emerging anthropological discourse on the continuity of pre-Columbian and modern culture in Mexico was mediated by his interest in the radical politics of the 1920s, thus creating the dual temporality built into the images in the "Prologue." This chapter will also introduce some of the most important characters in the story of Eisenstein in Mexico and provide a brief sketch of the cultural landscape of Mexico, starting with the decade preceding Eisenstein's arrival, when the rudiments of the cultural system that associated anthropology, politics, and the emergence of what is now known as the Mexican Renaissance in the arts came into existence. It will then turn to Eisenstein's own conceptions of the primitive—or what he, following Levy-Bruhl, referred to as "prelogical" or sensuous thinking—as one of the points of connections with the Mexican postrevolutionary culture.


Eisenstein's first real encounter with Mexican culture was perhaps in the fall of 1927 when Diego Rivera, one of the most famous Mexican revolutionary artists and a fellow muralist (and future artistic and political rival) of Siqueiros, visited Moscow. Like many other foreign visitors to Moscow at the time, Rivera stayed at the Bristol Hotel, where the guest book included the names of Alfred Barr Jr., who later became a famous historian of Soviet art; Joseph Freeman, future writer and editor of the leftist journal Free Masses in New York and TASS representative in Mexico (1929); and the U.S. writer Harry Longfellow Dana. These were well-known figures at the time in the loosely connected global network of modernist critics, collectors, and promoters. Rivera apparently found it easy to assimilate to Muscovite society, owing to the fact that he knew many Russians from his days in Paris. Furthermore, he had remained good friends with Mayakovsky, who had stayed with Rivera two years earlier and contributed to the dissemination of publicity about Rivera's artistic works in Moscow.

Eisenstein met with Rivera on October 17, receiving the Mexican artist in his apartment in Chistye Prudy. Rivera showed him a German monograph on his murals, as well as Tina Modotti's photographs taken a year before to accompany them.

Upon seeing Rivera's work, Eisenstein apparently recalled the macabre prints of Mexican folk artist José Guadalupe Posada, which he had come upon by accident in the German magazine Kolnische Illustrierte. Both Rivera's revolutionary murals and Posada's prints had already been subject to laudatory mention by Mayakovsky in his Mexican travel notes, My Discovery of America (Moe Otkrytie Ameriki), published in 1926. Thus, it is not surprising that upon his arrival in Mexico, Eisenstein set off to study both pre-Columbian cultural artifacts and the contemporary art of Mexico, especially the works of the muralists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, ultimately deciding that his film would be an homage to these artists. Of equal importance to Eisenstein was Anita Brenner's book Idols Behind Altars, which promoted a similar synthesis of the pre-Columbian and the ultramodern, and which Eisenstein read just prior to his arrival in Mexico. We shall return to Brenner and her role as Eisenstein's interlocutor later in this chapter and the next. For now, a brief sketch of the development of postrevolutionary cultural ideology of Mexico will help us contextualize Eisenstein's fascination with the indigenous culture.

Turning to Mexico's distant past in the "Prologue," Eisenstein's film simultaneously reflects the importance of the pre-Columbian foundations of Mexican history, and the revival of this past as part of the postrevolutionary national ideology of indigenismo, to which the muralist project of Rivera and Siqueiros is intimately tied.

The revival of the figure of the indigeno as central to the new national identity was linked to a new emphasis on the scientific study of premodern culture originating in the work of Franz Boas, a German/American ethnologist and linguist. Through his theory of cultural relativism, this "father of modern cultural anthropology" broke the hold of cultural and racial evolutionism in the social sciences and philosophy. Boas had visited Mexico, where his lectures met with great success. Boas had helped create the Escuela Internacional de Antropologia y Etnologia in Mexico City in 1910, and one of his pupils, Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, who received his doctorate under Boas at Columbia in 1922, expressly saw in Boas's anthropological project an instrument to integrate Indians into the Mexican state. In his studies Boas assigned a special role to folklore and to artistic production, that of the capacity to transmit the forms of "original" culture and consciousness. The ideological cultural platform of postrevolutionary Mexico, its great diversity notwithstanding, was again deeply rooted in the creation of a new national identity based on indigenismo or mestizofilia—the indigenous pre-Columbian origin of the nation and its culture, and the celebration of miscegenation at the root of the Mexican nation.

The claim that all Mexicans and all Mexican art and culture had indigenous roots served as a unifying concept for the new postrevolutionary identity. Underneath that unity, however, there were deep conflicts about the interpretation of the "indigenous" past, reflecting divides between postrevolutionary Mexican ideologies that resisted easy categorization into traditional "left" and "right" terms.

José Vasconcelos, the rector of the National University and the head of Secretary of Public Education in the early 1920s, became the first official ideologue of this movement. He used the power of the state to endorse and disseminate a simple and powerful historical narrative: the glorious pre-Hispanic past was mediated by the high European criollo culture of the Spaniards, with their roots in a classical (Greco-roman) tradition that paralleled, in so many ways, the cultural patterns of the pre-Columbian kingdoms. Invigorated by a genuinely new American spirit, this Hispanic and non-Hispanic combination had produced a culture pregnant with intimations of a great future. The idea of racial, cultural, and historical continuity between pre-Columbian and contemporary Mexico was central.

In his quest for a new artistic (and mythological) canon for the new nation, Vasconcelos actively constructed new foundational myths for his imaginary Mexico. In all of them, the way in which gender and ethnicity are presented is crucial. Perhaps most important are the mutually reinforcing figures of the rural teacher (most readily incarnated in the figure of Vasconcelos's mistress, the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral) and of Quetzalcoatl, the "plumed serpent" of D. H. Lawrence's eponymous novel, who regenerates the earth (an image that will reappear in Rivera's murals as well as in Eisenstein's film). In his autobiographical writings, De Robinson a Odiseo: Pedagogía estructurativa, Vasconcelos mythologizes himself as a combination of a Hispanic Ulysses returning to his native land after years of traveling, a teacher of the young, and a figure who brings back to his country the benefits of culture as an instrument of democracy.

Vasconcelos's mythopoetic task of forging a shared Mexican identity was to no small degree modeled on Soviet agitprop efforts. The intended result of the operations of the Public Education Department, which supported a broad range of cultural activities, was to assimilate "the Mexican" to "the indigenous." This conception of a state formation is reflected in the murals, with their depiction of a utopian pre-Hispanic community as a shared national space. While Vasconcelos's ideological platform emphasized the figure of the indigenous, at the same time it assigned a special civilizing mission to education as a means of universal spiritual transcendence, with the didactic role performed by the state (and Vasconcelos as its representative). But, as Olivier Debroise notes in his Figuras en el Tropico, while the art of the muralists was governed by a very strong antibourgeois impulse both in art and ideology, an impulse shared by Vasconcelos to the extent that he identified "bourgeois" with the Porfirian emphasis on French academism, this new emphasis on the indigenous was rapidly assimilated and vulgarized in everyday lower-middleclass culture—proof that this construction did, in fact, resonate with the collective needs of the society. Thus in 1921 the newspaper El Universal organized its first pageant of indigenous beauty in response to the new canons from above. The winner was La India Bonita (The Pretty Indian) Bibiana Bribiesca, of a Mixtec origin from the state of Puebla, who did not speak a word of Spanish but who was received by the secretaries of state during tea time, with photographs published in El Universal to prove it.

So we see that the legitimization of the cultural platform of the Mexican Revolution was dependent on the glorification and mythologizing of the pre-Hispanic past and on figuring indigenes as noble savages to be civilized. Another key ideologue of the movement, anthropologist Manuel Gamio, continued this emphasis on the indigenous, but within a somewhat different intellectual and cultural framework.

Vasconcelos, who was primarily a believer in the classical European tradition and "educating the indio," presented a vision of a syncretic nation, where the tradition of the humanism, education, and rationalism of Western enlightenment merged with quasimystical (symbolist) premodern culture. This synthesis of European humanism (with elements of classicism) and the intuitivist premodern soul was to result in the formation of a "cosmic race, which, supported by the arts and education as the main instruments of the state ideology, would culminate in absolute unity, subsuming all particulars: unity will be consummated there by the triumph of fecund love and the improvement of all the human races." This unity, as we shall see, is not entirely unlike the organic unity and evolutionary approach to anthropology elaborated in Eisenstein's later writings. Vasconcelos's vision of the world was shared in particular by Roberto Montenegro and Adolfo Best Maugard, as well as by Diego Rivera, at least in the early stages of his artistic work in Mexico.

Unlike Vasconcelos, whose ideology derived from a background steeped in European classicism and humanism, with elements of fin-desiècle mysticism, Manuel Gamio (who was Boas's student in New York) belong to a new generation, one we can associate more directly with cultural relativism in anthropology and its cognate echoes in the avantgarde (postcubist) movements in art. Gamio and his disciples, which included most of Anita Brenner's circle, were allergic to Vasconcelos's hothouse esoterism; instead, their intellectual influences included Einstein, Malinowksy, and Freud, among others. While Gamio initially participated in Vasconcelos's projects (primarily working in archeology), after Calles became president in 1924 and Vasconcelos lost his position and left the country, Gamio saw his political power increase, especially as he became closely associated with the vision of the new government, along with Vasconcelos's successor at the Ministry of Education, Moisés Sáenz.

Unlike Vasconcelos, Sáenz did not consider art as a vehicle for creating a "cosmic race," assigning it instead an explicit role of creating a sense of nationalist unity and cultural identity based on pre-Columbian origins. Sáenz himself was a Protestant, a rare denominational choice in Mexico. From John Dewey, whose student he had been at Columbia University, he imbibed a distrust of metaphysics, and a tendency to measure cultural policy by pragmatic parameters. He shared with Gamio the emphasis on cultural integration and modernization. While indigenous origins were emphasized, the Gamio-Sáenz ideological platform was oriented to the pragmatic and populist, largely in synch with John Dewey's in the U.S. (Dewey himself came down to Mexico to teach in the summer of 1926), and influenced, as well, by William Morris's and John Ruskin's ideas about craft, and their suspicion of exaggerated ornamentation. The arts—and popular indigenous arts in particular—were seen as an expression of authentic cultural identity and thus a basis for unifying the nation. This approach, not surprisingly, emphasized the presence of pagan gods and rituals behind many of the Christian ceremonies—"idols behind the altars" is the phrase popularized by Anita Brenner in the title of her 1929 book. Brenner borrowed the term directly from Gamio. This book, illustrated with photographs by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, played an important role in the dissemination of Mexican art in the United States. It was also one of the texts on Mexico and its art read by Eisenstein before his arrival. What makes this book particularly noteworthy is that the national identity thus created was based on concepts of an exogenous provenance, both in terms of the structural position of the speaker vis-à-vis the object of research (from the impartial observations of the anthropologists), as well as in terms of the nationalities of these scholars, who were European (as is the case with most of the founding fathers of the discipline) or American (most of the archeological work done in Mexico in the postrevolutionary years was directed by the Carnegie Institute) or who, as we have seen with Gamio, received their training abroad. At the same time, most of the Mexican ideologues of this period were either primarily of criollo origins or educated in Europe or both, and some of the most active proponents of these new artistic movements were, indeed, European or American (most importantly, Jean Charlot, Katherine Anne Porter, Bertram and Ella Wolfe, and Anita Brenner). Thus the concept of indigenismo and Mexican nationalist state ideology were inseparable from trans-Atlantic anthropological developments of the early twentieth century. And as the revival of the traditional culture and the emphasis on the indigenous arts were part of the ethnological/anthropological platform, so was the inclusion of the arts and education as fundamental to the new national ideology. Indeed, some of the first institutions founded after the Mexican Revolution dealt with the study of anthropology and the arts. The most prominent examples of this were the National Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography and the International School of Archeology, lead by Gamio. But the state cultural policy in relation to the arts differed a great deal: while Vasconcelos supported the state patronage of (explicitly didactic) public artistic projects, such as the murals, Sáenz favored more liberal and populist didactic educational tools, such as open air chools.


Excerpted from IN EXCESS by masha salazkina Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Masha Salazkina is assistant professor of Russian and film and media studies at Colgate University.

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