(This, I'll have you know, is Lucid Frenzy's five hundredth post! Don't you get a telegram from the Queen for that? Perspective paradoxes may make it appear to go up after the exhibition has closed)
“I cannot help mocking all our unwavering certainties... Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase. Can you be definite that it is impossible to eat your cake and have it?”
It may be fitting that the first time I encountered Dutch artist MC Escher was through a popularised, bastardised copy. As a child I won a drawing competition in a comic. And unbeknownst to my young mind the poster prize, which soon adorned my bedroom wall, ripped off his images wholesale. Their compelling impossibility fascinated me. If you looked at them hard and long enough, surely they resolved back again into something resembling the laws of physics. My unwavering certainties were well and truly mocked.
But here's the real thing. This being the first major British exhibition devoted to Escher, its like Lowry all over again. With it's audience-attracting adjective “amazing” the show sold so well I was lucky to get a ticket. While the critics proved once more that the corollary of popularity is critical disdain. In the Telegraph Alistair Smart dismissed him as “the sort of artist you leave behind in your twenties… offering nothing in the way of emotion, expression or depth – just little games that grow tiresome when seen together on a large scale.” While Ben Luke, taking up Brian Sewell’s mantle in the Standard, scoffed “a great illustrator? Perhaps, if you like this kind of thing. But a great artist? Not on your life.”
You can particularly hear his lofty disregard in the use of the lowly i-word. In fact Escher may attract a perfect storm of critical antipathy. He mostly worked with prints, and while he limited his editions that wasn't enough for an art scene so fixated upon the original. Plus, as the show states he had “little to do with the main thrust of Modernism”, which makes him hard to fit into the neat lineages they so dutifully curate. And like Lowry the feeling may well have been mutual. Escher's standard response to critical analysis was to rebuff it. His motifs, he insisted, contained “no symbolic meaning whatsoever. I put them there only because I like them”.
Yet if popularity keeps the critics at bay, it can bring its own problems. Wikipedia has a well-populated page devoted to uses of Escher in popular culture. But these homages often do the opposite of my bedroom poster, invoking his name but reproducing him in at best a reduced format. Major elements of his art are often entirely absent, he becomes simply a shorthand for gravity being applied locally to different planes. In short Escher means walking the walls, which confuses him with Spider-Man. We think we get Escher. When the very point is not to.
He's most often associated with the Surrealists, who were his contemporaries. Yet like Joseph Cornell this misunderstands his art. Perhaps even more so for, unlike Cornell, he didn’t even associate with the group - corresponding not with British Surrealist Roland Penrose but his mathematician nephew Roger. In fact he isn’t a Surrealist for reasons very similar to Cornell. As said of the Cornell show:
“Surrealist artworks tend to be about bursting the barriers between dream and wakefulness, between the conscious and the unconscious, so have a tendency to erupt with lurid and provocative imagery.”
Which isn't Escher at all. Even 'Dream' (1935, above), perhaps his most Surrealist work, has arches and avenues which reflect the moonlight calm of de Chirico rather than the mad mid-day sun of Dali. (Overall, the nearest Surrealist to him was probably Magritte. Their work shares a deadpan quality which provides a pseudo-seamlessness, delivering the impossible as though it was the everyday. And both men topped that off by cultivating a staid, anti-bohemian persona. But more of that anon.)
And all that separated him from Surrealism became twice as true for the later psychedelic generation. Escher’s reaction to hippie adulation was roughly similar to Tolkien’s, and went along the lines of “you damn kids get off my lawn”. In the now much-traded story, he refused the Stones permission to use his art for an album cover because Mick Jagger's letter had improperly addressed him by his first name. That may well have been not just an anecdote but a rescue. His art didn't belong there, and perhaps when seizing on that surface detail he intuitively sensed it didn't.
In fact, in one of the biggest surprises of the show, Escher's nearest relations were the Cubists, even if he doesn't fully imitate their crazy paving. The early 'Portrait of Pieter Jan Zutphen' (1920, above), combines the Cubist fracturing of an image into planes with the poster artist's building of object up from blocks of colour and shade. 'Other Worlds' (1947) superimposes different views of a single scene (above, straight on and below) into one. Much like Cubism, Escher's art is about art, about how we depict and how we see things.
But the show makes a convincing argument that his chief influence was not an art school but a place - the landscape and architecture of the Mediterranean world. First visiting there at the turn of the Twenties and living in Italy from '23 he at first faithfully delineated the views he found, fully obedient to all known laws of physics and gravity. Some works from this era even stray into folk art, for example 'Corte, Corsica' (1928) with it's vertical arrangement of fields in the background.
Despite the critics, like many of his prints Escher was multi-faceted, and to see him you need to take in them all. His art, so much about metamorphosis, metamorphoses itself between various themes, and looks at things from different angles without ever finally settling on anything. Trying to capture him isn't really so different from trying to resolve one of his warped perspectives, and as you struggle with it you can hear his mockingly straight-faced insistence there's nothing to see. I'm going to say here he had five faces, in increasing order of importance, but as everything shifts and overlaps in practice you might see more or even less.
The Great Architect
With the well-known 'Tower of Babel' (1928, above) Escher took what he called a “bird's eye view” of the subject. However in an old post I saw a different set of eyes at work:
“The crest of the Tower is looked down upon, an impossible angle for any human which suggests God’s perspective. God is not just the only named character in the Genesis passage, there’s even the suggestion he one day comes across the Tower. (‘Then the Lord came down to see the city and tower which mortal men had built.’) …Escher’s etching could therefore be of the moment in Genesis where God spies the Tower and, in a mixture of outrage and alarm, sabotages its builders by tying their tongues. ”
In short, Escher is seeing things from God's perspective. And when he draws himself he dominates his environments, while almost all his other figures are diminutively placed in a habitat. For 'Self Portrait' (1923, above) he was still a young man but a combination of style and medium make him look older, more authoritative. It could almost be a Bible illo of Abraham or Moses. Those staring eyes, which the radiating linework emphasises, often recur in his owls - another frequent motif of his.
We should notice how recurrent the paraphernalia of religion is in his work, how often we come across monks and temples. And we should remember that Escher originally studied to be an architect, while God is often referred to as “the Great Architect”. He often puts himself into what are virtually creator poses. 'Hand With Reflecting Sphere' (1935, used as the poster image of the show, seen up top), can be read both as the Earth in the creator's hand and Escher at home in his study. He holds the world up while he's at the centre of it. It reflects chiefly his face - monarch of all he surveys. After those early years the only fully realised figures in his work are himself and, occasionally, his wife. The others are little more than ciphers, a depersonalised populace for his environments.
This of course risks banality. All artists make stuff, and they frequently depict themselves at work as artists. But its not just the frequency of the images. This combines with the way he isn't arranging scenes but constructing worlds. The word “world” is almost as important in the show's title as “amazing”. He builds as much as he delineates. These works have their own reality, even down to their own rules of geometry. Escher is creating his own reality systems. If he is to be a deranged God of his private realm, one who cries “let vanishing points be bendy” then so be it. It's his world and anything he says goes.
The Escape Artist
Though apolitical by nature Escher came to distrust the increasing conformity of fascism and in 1935 he left Mussolini's Italy. From there, deprived of the Mediterranean scenes from which he drew inspiration, he started to invent his own - in his words - “mental imagery”. He was, in short, thrown back on his mind's eye. (Though he did produce fantastical images before then, the show suggests this as a spur which pushed him further in that direction.) And what better way to elude your enemies than tangle the rules of perspective after you? Perhaps his insoluble puzzles were his priest holes and escape hatches.
While this might seem to contradict Escher as the Great Architect, in many ways the two fit together neatly. It's often being out of place in this world that leads an artist to create their own. Escher was even less of an outsider artist than Cornell or Edward Burra, a tag which fits neither of them to start with. In a career sense, he was a successful commercial artist. But he kept at a remove from the art world, rigorously ploughing his furrow with total disregard for its fads and fashions. He meticulously built up his works, and pursued a private image repository over many years. That hermeticism makes him something like an outsider artist with a bank account.
Yet taken too far, this might suggest someone pushed out of the world, an exile from reality. It doesn't explain why, after the War, he didn't return to the Med or at least resume his travels. More importantly, despite their undoubted otherwordliness its inadequate to see his works purely in terms of escapism. For all his feigned innocence and deflection of attempts to analyse him, he said this quite explicitly:
“The primary purpose of all art forms… is to say something to the outside world; in other words, to make a personal thought, a striking idea, an inner emotion perceptible to other people’s senses in such a way that there is no uncertainty about the maker's intentions.”
The Cartographer of Transformation
Even if they don't make his greatest hits, Escher's works frequently featured tessellating forms. These forms by their nature made up each other’s outlines, like countries sharing borders. Breaking from the art convention that objects are discrete from one another, from the “my outline belongs to me” rule which can feel a basic presumption of art. (Portraiture, for example, is dependent upon it.)
While he often made repeating tessellations such as 'Regular Division of the Plane With Reptiles' (1942), let's focus here on those that morphed. Let’s remember that Cubism was the sole Modernist movement to catch Escher’s attention, and that Cubism associated itself with Relativity and other scientific developments. (Even if the connections they made were more poetic than actual.) Similarly there may be a general association between Escher and the less solid, more uncertain world being discovered by developments in physics. (He even called a print 'Relativity', one we'll look at in more detail later.) But in particular, he became more and more interested in morphology. (Chameleons became a common motif.)
'Encounter' (1944, above) is almost the opposite of of the dumbstruck workmen in 'Tower of Babel' - here two figures come to life and meet. The black figure in particular rises progressively from all fours with each iteration, like the famous evolution diagram of a monkey becoming a man.
And evolution became a recurrent theme. Evolution is often popularly supposed to be teleological, like a gradualist method of assembly. And as in the example above Escher can conforms to this. It's also true of 'Development II' (1939, above) which uses abstraction as a kind of primordial soup from which form emerges, the fully realised lizards seemingly walking off the edge of the print. But its a reversal of this which wins out, such as the 'Circle Limit' series of the late Fifties and early Sixties, where the realised figure is at the cente of the image and shrinks in size towards the edge, like a pattern on a ball.
And with this his streets became two way. Or in the case of 'Verbum (Earth, Sky and Water)' (1942), three-way. In a composition almost like a chart or table, you can read outwards, the rays of creation building for example into a frog. Yet you can as easily read sideways, so that frog might morph into a fish or bird. While 'Metamorphosis II' (1939/40), were it not more than four metres long, could be displayed in a loop.
Escher articulated this cross traffic:
“We can think in terms of an interplay between the stiff, crystallised two-dimensional figures of a regular pattern and the individual freedom of three-dimensional creatures capable of moving about in space without hindrance. On the one hand, the members of planes of collectivity come to life in space; on the other, the free individuals sink back and lose themselves in the community.”
The Cartographer of Cosmic Balance
Alistair Smart sees Escher as “unquestionably pessimistic – or, if you prefer, absurdist – his figures not so much individuals as clones, usually trapped in nightmarish scenarios.” And it’s true that there's little to distinguish the faceless drones of'Relativity' (1953) from the centipede creatures of 'House of Stairs' (1951), displayed adjacently in the show (and here, as above). The moss garden of 'Waterfall' (1961) suggests diminutive micro-worlds, adding to insect associations.
And with that comes a definite ordering to things. As said of Lowry, he “painted environments then placed his figures within them… like animals in a habitat, like flocks of birds in trees”. And this makes his creatures inscrutable. He wrote that the figures in 'Ascending and Descending' (1960) “appear to be monks, adherents of some unknown sect” - as if he has no more clue than the rest of us. When his work is duplicated in film, animation or computer games, when characters or game-players have to be beamed from our world into one of his environments, this distancing is shattered and something vital is lost. We need to stand outside his prints, looking across an uncrossable threshold, as much as we did Cornell's shadow boxes.
Plus, Smart's does seem to be a common reaction. I overheard one attendee confessing she found Escher nightmarish as a child. And yet many others had purposefully brought their children, and were exultantly pointing out the logic puzzles to them. Perhaps Escher is simply Marimitey. And perhaps my reaction was set at an early age, by that poster on my bedroom wall. But while, as with any artist everyone has their right to their own Escher, I claim my Escher to be closer to Escher’s Escher.
For those figures never seem lost inside their environments, like Harry Potter befuddled on the stairs on his first day at Hogwarts. Instead they belong in them, are able to navigate them. It's our separation from them which makes the experience absurd, the way our perplexity contrasts with their ease. Our world makes sense to us, and theirs to them. How can this be reconciled?
If absurdism is at root the denial of inherent meaning in the universe, Escher could by contrast sound very much the optimist. He said “the desire for simplicity and order helps us to endure and inspire us in the midst of chaos. Chaos is the beginning, order is the conclusion.” Or, perhaps less certainly “Chaos is present everywhere in countless shapes and forms, while Order remains an impossible ideal, the exceptionally beautiful fusion of cube and octahedron doesn't exist. Nevertheless, we can always hope.”
As ever in art, order is associated with symmetry. And there's a kind of thwarted symmetry to 'Tower of Babel' with the two matching black-and-white harbours in the upper background, which then triumphs in the handshake of 'Encounter'. (Which Escher described as “a black pessimist and white optimist shaking hands with one another”.) And this yin/yang of black and white recurs quite frequently, for example in 'Day and Night' (1938, below.)
And this is visible in some of his more cosmological prints, for example 'Double Planetoid' (1949, below) which shown the human and animal worlds co-existing, towers and dinosaurs side by side. 'Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell)' (1960) is perhaps the pinnacle of this tendency, showing an angel and devil perpetually interlocked.
And in his art the “exceptionally beautiful fusion of cube and octahedron” did exist. This seems to have been a totem of Order for him, the hexagon and square polyhedral presented as a kind of ur-shape, a universal template out of which all else can emerge. It's visible in 'Crystal' (1947, below) or topping the towers in 'Waterfall' (1961). In the last example he specifically warned the viewer against any attaching any significance to them, surely enough to pique interest in itself.
The Slayer of Perspective
With really effective art it's often impossible to separate form and content – and Escher confirms this. His prints look 'clean', like architects' plans. His preparatory sketches were often made on graph paper, while his favoured print-making method was lithography - allowing for greater detail. The accumulation of this detail reassures the eye, lulls it. This is the solid, dependable stuff we rely on, that places the floor at our feet and keeps the ceiling up. It's like a joke told deadpan. It all looks so plausible you take a while to notice the impossibility, and even afterwards you still strain to reconcile the two.
'Belvedere' (1958, above) looks like an instructive diagram, detailed enough in its workings to be used as a plan. It even contains a diagrammatic map analogous to its main tower, then a man grasping a model frame beneath the finished thing. Yet it also has enough incidental detail to feel like a real place. And it's significant that among this detail Escher drapes his figures in Renaissance costumes.
There was no particular geographic reason why perspective was first devised in Italy, Florence did not contain more vanishing points than other places in the world. It came about for social reasons, in effect 'bundled in' with other Renaissance developments. Nevertheless the effect was to create an association. In the same back-of-the-brain way we assume the Thirties happened in black-and-white, we imagine the Renaissance was the time spatial depth first opened up. And with his Renaissance imagery Escher is exploiting this, in a way which wouldn't work had he used contemporary dress.
We've all become used to Post-Modern art, which displays the tropes of Modernism while denying them their meaning. In a similar way Escher is Post-Renaissance, pulling the rug from under conventions so long taken for granted they seemed a kind of natural law. “Surely its a bit absurd”, he wrote, “to draw a few lines and then claim it is a house.” Modernism, inasmuch as it had a relationship with the Renaissance, was anti-Renaissance, aiming to supplant it by replacing its pictorial devices, or to look back to times before it, or quite often both at the same time. But it didn't subvert it from within in the same way as Escher.
This isn't just true of his warped perspectives. Staircases and ladders, frequent images, are associated with hierarchy and with it order. A phrase such as “upstairs downstairs” suggests everything being in its place in the world. Escher's impossible staircases screw with this notion. A similar thing could be said of his play with levels of reality, such as 'Reptiles' (1943, above) is which modelling is used to make the reptiles appear in relief then revert to two dimensions. Or his breaking down of inside/outside distinctions, such as in 'Print Gallery' (1956). And yet his warped perspectives seem to have hit home the hardest. As the most counter-Renaissance bow in his quiver, they became his twisted Rosebud.
And Escher had one final twist to play on perspective – he bent it back into shape. There are more 'straight' prints than you'd expect, but when he returns to them late in his career it still pulls almost the same trick in reverse. In for example 'Three Worlds' (1956, below), you can take a while to realise its actually entirely possible. By the end the presence of genuine perspective and actual levels seems as strange as their absence. Even normal has stopped looking normal. Who could ask for anything more than that?
Now the alert reader has probably spotted what's going to be said next. Escher's fascination with transformation and systematic distorting of standard pictorial devices are undermining of the Renaissance. They cause attention to and thereby question those devices, like a magic trick being exposed by being done wrong. Yet his attempt to achieve order and cosmic balance through art, his evoking of some kind of supreme geometry could not be closer to a Renaissance mindset. Da Vinci for example often made geometric sketches (compare this to 'Crystal'), and used geometric forms in his compositions. Escher is the renaissance's successor and its saboteur. These two things do not fit together. Just like one of Escher's works, they make less sense the more you look at them. But the paradox you get when you put them together – that's Escher. That's who he is. Compellingly impossible.