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Escher’s space

“If we divide the picture vertically into three strips, the two extreme parts are both acceptable as realities, but in other respects each other’s inversion. In the central strip, things are uncertain and can be seen in two different ways: a floor is also a ceiling; an interior is also an exterior; convex is concave at the same time. There are two flute-playing boys; the left looks down on the cross vault of the chapel; he sees its outside. He could climb through his window, walk over the roof and jump down on the dark floor in front of the house. But the flute-playing boy at right, leaning out of his window, is inside the house; he sees that same roof as the ceiling over his head, and beneath him there is no floor, but a deep abyss.”

This quote comes from ‘Escher on Escher: Exploring the infinite’, a publication that was compiled after Escher’s death using his extensive notes for a series of lectures that he was to hold in the United States in 1964. Escher never got to present these lectures, because he had to undergo unexpected surgery while visiting relatives in Canada prior to his departure to the US. Conscientious and practical as he was, Escher had already prepared the notes and lists of slides before he departed for Canada.

I have included the three slides of Concave and convex, the litho from 1955, next to each other with some white space in between.

The white spaces emphasize the confusing central section. In his inimitable style, Escher often hides a clue in a print that is difficult to decipher. This time, the clue is in the ensign in the right-hand part. I tend to look at it as a concave figure that is bordered along its diagonal bottom and top by a spiraling band of square and diamond planes. Yet when I view it from another angle, I see diagonal cubes that are stacked on top of each other like staggered brickwork. While writing this I found myself looking up and down at the ensign on my computer monitor, until, suddenly, they turned into elongated shoe boxes! In the process, the three grey square planes became the front of the long ‘boxes’, each with a white top and a dark left side. It’s as though my eyes ‘flipped’ first, before the image that I was viewing. My brain appears to perceive other things, possibly due to the angle at which I’m viewing? Seeing is therefore not always observing. This sounds like something straight out of a Chinese fortune cookie and yet, with Escher, it is all too often true. Furthermore, he deliberately hides that wisdom in a work of art!

Is Convex and concave an exception? The answer is short and to the point: no. Convex and concave is in fact a product of a development that began very early on (1928) in the career of M.C. Escher. In it, he connects rooms that in reality couldn’t possibly be linked up. Incidentally, this technique for dealing with space on a flat surface was frequently deployed by 20th century visual artists. There is however a difference between Escher’s stance on how to combine the possible with the impossible within a work of art, and that of most other artists such as cubists and expressionists, not to mention surrealists, who also combined possible and impossible spaces. In these three movements (cubism, expressionism, surrealism), this multiple world view often give rise to unrest and chaos.

In contrast to the exponents of other 20th century European art movements, Escher’s combinations are premised on clarity and structure. After the Second World War Escher starts receiving increasingly enthusiastic responses from scientists, including mathematicians, crystallographers and geologists, and his prints become increasingly influenced by the information they imparted. The Canadian and British mathematicians Donald Coxeter and Roger Penrose, as well as the Dutch mathematicians Professor Schouten and Bruno Ernst (Hans de Rijk) shared ideas that challenged and inspired Escher to incorporate them in his prints. Mathematicians were amazed at how a lay person was capable of, as Doris Schattschneider once said to me: “finding a recognisable form for completely abstract formulas.”

Escher’s older half-brother Berend had been an important ally of Escher since 1937. A specialist in crystallography, Berend identified with Maurits’ visual experiments. From the considerable scientific literature donated by his brother, Mauk gleaned visual information for his tessellation studies that he could apply to his work. The brothers had for some time been planning to work on a book together, with Maurits creating prints that would illustrate Berend’s theories. Unfortunately this plan never materialised.

Escher was extremely fastidious; the content of a print was paramount. He remains an artist first and foremost, who had accidentally ventured into the world of science. He was not always enamoured with the information or plans presented to him by the scientific community. Shortly after the first visits from Hans de Rijk, Escher wrote the following to his son Arthur:

“he paid me another visit the other day, in an attempt to persuade me to create an entirely different ‘inversion’ (than Concave and convex)….. “I don’t think he’ll succeed, and neither will I (to get sufficiently excited about the idea).”

Below is a series of prints that illustrate how, since 1928, Escher starts to deploy ever more ingenious ways to combine multiple world views within a single work of art. As always, this is a matter of interpretation. It all begins with Bonifacio and Castrovalva.

M.C. Escher, Bonifacio, woodcut, October 1929
M.C. Escher, Castrovalva, lithograph, February 1930

In these prints, Escher manages to link up the foreground (plants) to the background (horizon) in an utterly intuitive and believable way. In Covered alley in Atrani (1931) and in Ravello, Porta Maria dell’Ospidale (1932) he combines different spaces in an entirely different way.

M.C. Escher, Covered Alley in Atrani (Coast of Amalfi), wood engraving, November 1931
M.C. Escher, Porta Maria dell’Ospidale, Ravello (Old Church, Ravello), wood engraving, February 1932

In Atrani, he brings together three different perspectives from a real-life situation. We are sitting on a staircase, looking at the covered intersection in front of us. Matters are confused because the left-hand staircase goes up and the right-hand staircase goes down, creating two escape routes within the work. Because we are sitting a few rungs above both stairs, we can also feel a space behind us. The second situation from Ravello is less complicated: at the end of a Gothic-style rib vault we can see two passageways.

In Metamorphosis I, he depicts the transition of the realistically depicted small town of Atrani via geometrically rigid patterns into a tessellation. The outlines of the different geometric figures connect seamlessly to create a freestanding Oriental figure. This last part is a tessellation.

In the two prints Marseille and Still life and street from 1936 and 1937 respectively, Escher’s combinations of foreground and background become even more extreme than in the first two of this series (Bonifacio and Castrovalva).

M.C. Escher, Marseille, wood engraving, December 1936
M.C. Escher, Still life and street, woodcut, March 1937

In Other world and Up and down, both from 1947, everything is turned on its head. With his imagination partly fired up by his old school building in Arnhem, Escher effortlessly combines three and two different rooms respectively in an utterly credible way. In our heads, everything whizzes back-and-forth and is turned upside-down, topsy-turvy and inside-out.

M.C. Escher, Other world, woodcut and wood engraving, January 1947
M.C. Escher, Up and down, lithograph, July 1947

The school building in Arnhem was also the inspiration for the impossible spatial combinations from House of stairs and Relativity, from 1951 and 1953.

M.C. Escher, House of stairs, lithograph, November 1951
M.C. Escher, Relativity, woodcut, July 1953

Concave and convex is the next step in which Escher attempts to convey contiguous events within the possibilities afforded by the print medium: from left to right, from convex to the transition and confusion in the centre part to concave. He was never entirely satisfied with this work. I can well imagine this, because the transitions are too abrupt for somebody who wants to surreptitiously trick his audience.

As is so often the case with the works of Escher, Concave and convex belongs to a long series of works. At the same time, a number of these works can also be placed in other categories and combinations. This versatility is what makes Escher’s prints so exhilarating. How many ways are there to look at a work of art? The more I read his texts, the more I learn… and the more I see. The longer I occupy myself with it, the ‘fuller’ the image I get of his work. Time and time again, I realise just how open Escher’s work is to so many different interpretations. This might partly explain why his works continue to delight and fascinate.

Escher not only shrewdly combines unexpected spaces, he also shows us through his optical illusions that the impossible can be made possible, provided you work as meticulously as possible. And of course there is his predilection for using tessellation to depict metamorphoses. However, transformations can also be evoked though thought associations, as we have seen. And there is more, much more, both in terms of his choice of themes and shapes, as we have discovered in the analyses of the previous months…

I increasingly get the impression that the sense of wonder that Escher shares with us consists of air bubbles, which are served up so delicately that they continue to bubble in my brain.

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