Have you ever found yourself trapped inside a dream, wandering aimlessly around a staircase, or unable to find your way out of a building? Followers of Freud and other experts in the human psyche might well be able to shed light on those dreams for you. But there is only one person who can actually show you what such a dream feels like: that one person is Maurits C. Escher. In prints such as Belvedere, Other World, Up and Down, Ascending and Descending and Relativity, he shows just how lost and confused we can get inside a dream. This sensory perception can be so life-like, that it almost resembles a real experience. You feel as though you are ascending, whereas, in fact, half-way up you realise you are descending… or are you actually going up after all? Whether descending or ascending, you are trapped inside a staircase with no way out. And nobody seems to think this is odd. You’re on the ground floor in a “house of stairs”, but the ladder that you have just placed up against the wall turns out to be up against the outside wall of the top floor.
This folly is hugely puzzling; confusion abounds. As is customary with Escher, the impossibility is barely noticeable… at least, at first. Your first impression is: hmmm that’s a slightly archaic-looking building. This image is reinforced by the little figures dressed in late-medieval clothing. And yet, the scene is intriguing enough to make you want to look at it more closely. To “examine” it may be a more apt way of putting it. Slowly but surely, you realise that things are not quite what they seem… so you start looking at the details.
I find it easier to describe this print from top to bottom, than from bottom to top. There is so much going on on the ground floor that this distracts from what is actually happening. Of course, Escher orchestrated this on purpose; he deliberately leads us up the garden path to ‘circumvent’ the problem. We are lulled into a falls sense of security, into believing that this is a straightforward representation. This is entirely in accordance with Escher’s adage, that an impossible situation needs be shrouded in mystery so that it becomes apparent only a after doing a double take that things are not quite right. By starting at the top and working our way down, our job is made just that little bit easier!
Here we can see a young woman standing on the right-hand side on the first floor of a belvedere looking at the surrounding mountains. We are in the Abruzzo region of Italy, near Castrovalva. If you focus solely on her, you won’t see anything untoward. The floor on which she is standing runs from left to right across the picture. Two male figures can be seen climbing up a ladder, presumably to visit her. Somewhere between those two levels, something odd happens. In the words of Escher: “On the floor of the lower platform, that is to say indoors, stands a ladder, which two people are busy climbing. But as soon as they arrive a floor higher they are back in the open air and have to re-enter the building.”* The figure standing at the very top, a court jester, is clearly positioned, with ladder and all, on the outside of the floor where the young lady is standing. The man who is poised to climb the ladder, however, is indoors. Furthermore, that space crosses over from the front to the back. In other words, his floor and the woman’s floors stand at right angles to each other, and yet her floor is supported by pillars that start at the back and front corners of his floor! Viewed together, the construction of both floors appears to form a rectangle from one end to the other: an optical illusions in every sense of the word.
When you look more closely, you will see that the pillars are arranged in a most peculiar way. From our perspective, behind the gentleman looking into the valley, the left pillar, A, to the left of him (with the arrow) should run through to pillar B to the right of him on the balustrade. But, as it happens, this left pillar, A, is supporting the front of the diagonal part of the floor on which the young woman is standing. Or, to turn it around: the archway through which the gentleman is looking out doesn’t actually exist. It is an impossible construction.
Escher admittedly hints at this by positioning the archway above the gentleman; yet at the same time he positions column C behind the gentleman as a support for this arch. Which in turn makes it clear that pillar C behind the gentleman is supporting the front of the arch above which the lady is standing. This is a visual contradiction of the highest order. If you start at the base of a pillar and look up, you inadvertently and unexpectedly land in an entirely different part of the folly. Without the top floor, oh visual confusion, the gentleman so it appears, to stand in a logical construction!
Escher describes Belvedere extensively in the Dutch publication Grafiek en Tekeningen:
‘In the lower left foreground there lies a piece of paper on which the edges of a cube are drawn. Two small circles mark the places where edges cross each other. Which edge comes at the front and which at the back? In a three-dimensional world simultaneous front and back is an impossibility and so cannot be illustrated. Yet it is quite possible to draw an object which displays a different reality when looked at from above and from below. The lad sitting on the bench has got just such a cube-like absurdity in his hands. He gazes thoughtfully at this incomprehensible object and seems oblivious to the fact that the belvedere behind him has been built in the same impossible style.”**
A drawing of a cube and an impossible cube have been inserted here to clarify the confusion caused by the optical illusion which Escher so cunningly applies in Belvedere.
The impossible cube is one of those mindboggling figures that makes my head spin. This is undoubtedly to do with the way the human brain perceives and interprets visual information; the information is gathered in mirror image by the retina, which in turn transmits it to the brain, which tries to rectify it back to its original, “real” state. The confusion between front and back is almost too much to bear. Whenever I look at the cube, or Belvedere, I cannot help but feel dizzy. In both cases, my poor head is in a spin. Of course, Escher took a bit of a gamble with our reactions. A viewer who anticipates feeling sick even before looking at the print, will err on the side of caution and try not to look too closely at the picture, and will therefore miss the impossibility of Belvedere and therefore Escher’s famous double take: that moment you blink and you realise that something really odd is happening here!
This cunning way of dealing with space is a variation on the prints from the Relativities series, as Escher calls them. Other World, Up and Down, House of Stairs and Relativity are four works in which he unassumingly and cunningly connects different perspectives. Escher created these prints between 1947 and 1953. All four are in fact spatial conceptions in which movement plays a crucial role. For instance, in Other World we find ourselves in a room looking out through different sets of windows onto the lunar landscape from the side, from above and from below.
In the other three prints of this group, he depicts a room in a similarly cunning way. This series of four is directly related to the staircase of Escher’s secondary school. In this, Escher combines – as he had been doing since his earliest works – memory with reality and fantasy with perception. Visitors to Escher in Het Paleis who look at the life-sized photos of the school’s staircase displayed at the entrance to the exhibition A SENSE OF WONDER, will instantly recognise Escher’s quotations for the Relativities series shown in the next room. What we miss in the photographs are the movements and the hustle and bustle of groups of pupils walking from all sides in and through the building, whilst switching classroom simultaneously, or at the start or end of their breaks. Looking at Photograph A, we can visualise in our minds’ eye the pupils far in the distance, descending or ascending the staircase, walking down towards the cross-corridor from left to right and vice versa. There may even be children walking out of the building, or walking into the building. Whilst all this is going on, there is somebody standing right beside you. Step inside the “house of stairs”, as in Photo B, and you could imagine the staircase as a Z shape and picture all manner of movements. These experiences and recollections in the “house of stairs”, in which so much happened at the same time, are captured in these series of prints. In a single work of art, Escher combines the different perspectives of the room.
Both of these photos were cleaned up using Photoshop by Studio Gerrit Schreurs in 2014 to approximate the situation during Escher’s time at secondary school.
In Belvedere, Ascending and Descending and Waterfall, Escher applies changes and combinations of perspective within a single object. In Ascending and Descending, impossible things happen on the staircase around the courtyard; in Waterfall the impossibility lies in the uphill movement of water, and in Belvedere we perceive the impossible connection between two platforms. Escher would never have produced these iconic works of art, had he not experimented extensively in his earlier works.
* 2013 reproduction by Taschen GMBH, Köln The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher, translated by J. E. Bingham of “M.C.Escher Grafiek en Tekeningen; ingeleid en toegelicht door de graficus, p15; first published by Koninklijke uitgeverij J.J.Tijl NV Zwolle; 1959