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From science-fiction to Gravity

The world-famous print Relativity and the lesser known Gravity have more in common than it seems. At first sight, it seems unlikely that there might be a connection between this typical Escher polyhedral star and his Relativity print, which depicts figures walking up and down a loop of stairs. For Escher the connection is obvious. He describes Gravity as:

“a transition to the relativity group.”*

Other World, Up and Down and Relativity, which were all discussed in a previous story, all belong in the relativity group as works in which Escher explores the possibility of combining different sources of gravity and perspectives within the same print.

Many of Escher’s prints can be placed in more than one context within his oeuvre as a whole. This applies to Gravity, which can be seen as one of Escher’s bizarre planetoids and also as being related to Other World, Up and Down and Relativity. Maybe I should simply start at the beginning.

Gravity naturally fits within the series of planetoids and stars that Escher depicted between 1948 and 1954. His celestial bodies all appear to be set in the same kind of science-fiction world.

The first wood engraving print in the series Stars, completed in 1948, is relatively straightforward. Escher himself describes the image as follows:

“Single, double and triple regular bodies float like stars through space. In the midst of them is a system of three regular octahedrons indicated by their edges only. Two chameleons have been chosen as denizens of this framework because they are able to cling by their legs and tails to the beams of their cage as it swirls through space.”*

This was followed by Double Planetoid in 1949 and Tetrahedral Planetoid in 1954.

M.C. Escher, Double Planetoid (Double Planet), wood engraving in green, dark blue, black and white, printed from four blocks, December 1949
M.C. Escher, Tetrahedral Planetoid (Tetrahedral Planet), woodcut in green and black, printed from two blocks, April 1954

The double and the tetrahedral planetoids look as if they might be inhabited by civilisations somewhat like our own. This is confirmed by Escher’s commentary on these prints. He describes Double Planetoid as:

“Two regular tetrahedrons, piercing each other, float through space as a planetoid. The light-coloured one is inhabited by human beings who have completely transformed their region into a complex of houses, bridges and roads. The darker tetrahedron has remained in its natural state, with rocks, on which plants and prehistoric animals live. The two bodies fit together to make a whole but they have no knowledge of each other.”*

Of the Tetrahedral Planetoid he says:

“This little planet inhabited by humans has the shape of a regular tetrahedron and is encircled by a spherical atmosphere. (…) All the vertical lines, the walls of the houses, the trees, the people, point in the direction of the core of the body – its centre of gravity. All of the horizontal surfaces, the gardens, roads and stretches of water in ponds and canals are part of a spherical crust.”*

In this science-fiction world Escher explores the possibility of, as he puts it, combining different sources of gravity and perspectives in a visually credible way. Depicting these multiple sources of gravity in an extraterrestrial setting makes them seem more logical and more easily conceivable. Or, as he wrote in his notes for a talk he gave to a mathematics club in 1963:

“If you want to draw attention to something that is impossible first you have to fool yourself and your listeners by presenting your story in a way that conceals the element of impossibility, so it goes undetected by a superficial listener. The story needs to contain a certain enigma that is not immediately obvious.”**

If we change the listeners into viewers, we can imagine them looking at these prints.

In this series Escher makes the impossible acceptable and visible in a completely logical way. This cast-iron logic with a devious twist was apparent in his art from early on. Still Life with Mirror created in 1934 is an obvious example. Once again the image revolves around a visual impossibility that is not immediately obvious.

We see a similar subtle impossibility in Other world and Relativity. Both of these prints force the viewer to perform a conceptual rotation. In a letter to his friend Paul Kessler Escher wrote that he exhibited Double Planetoid in Amsterdam with a “rotating frame”! *** The people who visited the exhibition were able to rotate the print for themselves! This might seem to be a trivial aside, but in my view it is a critically important detail in that it confirms the supposition that the prints were actually meant to rotate. At the same time the humour inherent in displaying a work of art in a rotating frame puts the whole thing into perspective.

In the middle of the twentieth-century art was taken very seriously. An artist who chose to exhibit his work in such a bizarre way inevitably alienated the public. Yet to Escher’s way of thinking it made sense to draw attention to his subject in an entertaining way. The rotating frame was the perfect way to display the image. In the same letter to Kessler Escher writes:

“The reaction of my colleagues to whom I showed the print was so minimal, they simply stood there and looked at it without showing any sign of interest, that it left me feeling somewhat discouraged after so much hard work.”

With the benefit of sixty years of hindsight the lack of interest, or even amazement, is less incomprehensible. After the Second World War, art in Western Europe split into two camps, with pre-war realism on one side and the new abstract art on the other. Older painters who favoured a more traditional approach had been grappling with this issue for a while, but for printmakers abstraction was completely out of the question. In this conservative milieu Escher’s stars and planets met with incomprehension. His prints seemed to be poles apart from any of the current trends. Not only did they not depict any figurative reality, but the strange world that they did depict failed to fascinate.

When we look at the stars and planets Escher created between 1948 and 1954, we might be tempted to see the mezzotint Crystal and the lithograph Order and Chaos as part this series.

M.C. Escher, Contrast (Order and Chaos), lithograph, February 1950
M.C. Escher, Crystal, mezzotint, December 1947

But these works belong with Escher’s crystals and not with his stars and planets. Crystal and Order and Chaos are both heavy with symbolism: the almost transparent star dodecahedron in Order and Chaos and the octahedron in Crystal are depicted against a background of clutter or disorder that creates a sense of unease, while the prefect crystal represents order and regularity. Escher deliberately placed this clarity in juxtaposition to the unexpected and incongruous events of daily life.

M.C. Escher, Path of life I, woodcut in red and black, printed from two blocks, March 1958
M.C. Escher, Path of life II, woodcut in grey-green and black, printed from two blocks, March 1958

M.C. Escher, Circle limit II, woodcut in red and black, printed from two blocks, March 1959
M.C. Escher, Circle limit IV (Heaven and Hell), woodcut in ochre and black, printed from two blocks, July 1960

However, I think the planetoids were probably a background influence when Escher began to explore infinite images in prints such as Smaller and smaller, Path of life I and Path of life II and Circle limits I to IV. All of these works involve rotation and infinite reduction or expansion of forms. In the Circle limits woodcuts Escher got as close as possible to the sphere, which has no beginning or end.

Escher’s descriptions of his work, such in the book Grafiek en Tekeningen published in 1959 and earlier correspondence or the notes he made for a series of lectures in Canada and America in 1964, are consistent in their explanation of the visual depiction of different sources of gravity within a single work of art. Escher sought and found an apparently logical concept to portray an impossible situation. He explored this fascination in two different series: the science-fiction planets and stars and the series that included Other World, Up and Down and Relativity. This is the underlying connection.

Quotes taken from:

* M.C.Escher Grafiek en Tekeningen, ingeleid en toegelicht door de graficus [Graphic prints and drawings by M.C. Escher, with an introduction and commentary by the artist], Taschen GMBH 2006 re-edition of the book originally published by Koninklijke uitgeverij J.J. Tijl NV, Zwolle 1959, pp. 13-14.

** Lecture given at the Center for Mathematics in Amsterdam on 5 November 1963.

*** Wim Hazeu, M.C.Escher: een biografie [M.C.Escher: a biography], Meulenhoff 1998, p. 325.

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