Thursday, October 6, 2011

M.C. Escher

I made my first proper ‘drawing’ in fourth grade. It was a shaded diagram, outlined using a ruler on isometric dot paper, for a maths interest group. I’m not sure how much that qualifies it as an artwork, but it was the first time I’d really considered ideas like line and value—or used a pencil that wasn’t grade HB—so for all intents and purposes, it was one of my earliest attempts at art.

The subject of the drawing was a structure which I (eleven years) later learned is called a Penrose triangle:
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To quote Roger Penrose himself: “Here is a perspective drawing, each part of which is accepted as representing a three-dimensional, rectangular structure. The lines of the drawing are, however, connected in such a manner as to reproduce an impossibility. As the eye peruses the lines of the figure, sudden changes in the interpretation of the distance of the object form the observer are necessary.”

But Mr. Penrose’s work wasn’t what we had been looking at. Instead, we were taken through a series of highly fantastical, yet incredibly realistic-looking pieces that completely transformed the way I thought about dimension and perspective. That was how I became introduced to the work of M.C. Escher.

Maurits Cornelis Escher, born in 1898 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, was the youngest in a family of four sons.  His father, whom the young Escher idolised, was a civil engineer. From him Maurits gained his exacting sense of orderliness, a desire to find and portray the ‘beauty and order’ in a seemingly chaotic world.
Escher was a terrible student at school. After failing his final exam in high school he was enrolled as an architecture student in the Haarlem School for Architecture and Decorative Arts, where he (quote) “came within a hairsbreadth of having the opportunity to become a useful member of society.” Under the recommendation of one of the teachers, S. Jessurun de Mesquita, however, Escher dropped architecture and continued instead to pursue his interest in graphic arts.

After graduation, Escher married and moved to live in Italy, where he mainly produced works depicting landscapes and architecture with complex, distended perspectives. In 1935 the family moved to Switzerland due to intensifying Fascist ideologies in Italy. A pivotal 1936 visit to the Alhambra palace-fortresses in Grenada, Spain triggered in him a fascination for the symmetry and geometrical motifs expressed by the Moorish mosaic. For the rest of his life Escher experimented with what he termed “the regular division of the plane.” Eventually he moved back to Holland, all the while subsisting on a meagre income and little recognition, relying on his parents and parents-in-law for financial support. In 1951, however, Escher’s work suddenly began to gain exponential popularity, especially within the United States. His prints remained in high demand until his death in 1972, and are much admired to this day.

Escher was not a draughtsman by trade. He described himself as “a graphic artist with heart and soul”, preferring to produce lithographs, woodcuts, wood engravings, mezzotint prints and even carved beechwood spheres. Drawing for him was “an indispensable link in the chain of his activities, but never [the] goal.” But I feel justified in considering Escher’s work as a form of drawing, because he did draw them, not only in his preliminary sketches but also onto his lithographic stones and wood-blocks.

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Waterfall was one of the pieces we studied in fourth grade. The more I learn about Escher’s work, the more it boggles my mind.  The premise for Waterfall is none other than the Penrose triangle; here Escher expands the idea of presenting a structure which, when dissected and analysed sequentially, appears completely reasonable and conceivable, and yet makes no sense at all when considered comprehensively. Starting at the top of the waterfall, our eyes follow the drop down to the gutter whereupon the water meanders down the zigzag, only to end up at the top of the waterfall again. The two towers appear to be of equal height, and yet, logically, the left one must be taller than the one on the right. The plant forms in the lower left corner are in fact mosses about a tenth of an inch in height, but depicted in this scene as being larger than a human. Escher has really distorted perspective here—we cannot even determine for certain which part of the gutter is in the foreground relative to the rest of the mill.

I love how Escher tries to infuse life into his work. Seldom are his pieces sterile; there are almost always figures or animals or imaginary creatures populating his created worlds. In Waterfall, for example, he includes a woman hanging her laundry and a male figure leaning back against a terrace, as though this impossible setting were in fact perfectly ordinary and run-of-the-mill (pun intended). In explaining Waterfall, Escher remarks, “The miller can keep it perpetually moving by adding every now and then a bucket of water to check the evaporation.”
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Hand with Reflecting Sphere is another one of my favourites. In the polished surface of the globe we see reflected the image of the surrounding world, including Escher himself in the act of drawing the sphere. It appears at first sight that it is his left hand that is holding the globe, but it is actually his right—Escher was left-handed, and Hand is a print, a reflection itself of the original drawing. In Hand Escher has managed to condense an entire room and all its contents into one circular surface, and despite being flat the image gives the impression of being remarkably three-dimensional. His attention to minute details, such as the creases on his hand, add to the realism of the piece, although at the same time as capturing the world so persuasively Escher was very much aware that his rendering was and would always remain a two-dimensional copy. There is a careful balance of value in the image: the darker shades of the globe are contrasted with a lighter background, which gradually darkens to bring out the paler foundation of the hand. Interestingly, as Escher points out, if you hold a reflective globe thus the point between your eyes will always be at the centre of the sphere: “No matter how you turn or twist yourself, you can’t get out of that central point. You are immovably the focus of your world.”

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This one is new for me, having only come across it during research for this post. But I think Order and Chaos exemplifies one of Escher’s key objectives—that is, to find perfection in the disorder that is our world. The flawlessness of the twelve-pointed star (a ‘stellated dodecahedron’), encased within a perfect sphere with which centre its own coincides, is the symbol for order and exactness. Surrounding it are various and sundry broken, discarded objects with no apparent connection. As arbitrary as this collection seems, Escher reveals that he actually selected the items very carefully out of a rubbish dump because each had to be identifiable; recognisability and an association to the surrounding world were extremely important to him. Notice how he chose to use a gray background rather than the conventional white; in this way, Escher uses elements of both additive and subtractive drawing, starting from the midpoint value and working outwards towards both extremes rather than working in one direction.

To Escher, drawing was a game: he played with perspective, challenged conventional perceptions of reality and illusion, and made possible the apparently impossible. Although he was not trained in mathematics (in fact, he claimed he was rather bad at it whilst he was in school), his work has a clearly mathematical character and precision, and in some ways could even be regarded as more scientific than artistic. I think that is why Escher remains my favourite artist of all time. Every one of his pieces is so unbelievably fascinating, so rich and eloquent in so many aspects, and so interdisciplinary in their conception. In them there is an intrinsic beauty, a systematic intricacy which even the most inexperienced and untrained viewers—as I was in fourth grade—can detect and admire. And yet at the same time his skill as an artist and painstaking effort are also ostensible, so that even practised professional critics can appreciate his work. But I could go on and on and on about Escher’s art without doing it any justice, and this post is already far too long for sanity’s sake.

Escher, M. C. (1989). Escher on Escher. New York: Harry N Abrams, Incorporated.

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