“I’m thinking about a very attractive commission which the Post Office might offer me.”
These words were penned by Escher in June 1967 in a letter to his eldest son George in Canada. After a protracted period of uncertainty, he was finally granted the assignment in early 1968. During the interim period, he had already been experimenting with various motifs. The work of Escher can be broadly divided into two themes: eternity and perpetuity. In no works did he demonstrate this more clearly than in his fantastic Metamorphosis II and Metamorphosis III.
A metamorphosis is a change in appearance. The most famous example is a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. In 1937, Escher created his first Metamorphosis. In it, he depicts the transition of the small town of Atrani via geometrically rigid patterns into a freestanding figure. This woodcut is only a “try-out”, compared to how Escher subsequently fleshed out the theme.
In 1939, he created Metamorphosis II. Atrani once again features prominently, but instead of being at the beginning of a series of transitions, the little town is now virtually at the end. The most striking difference between Metamorphoses I and II, however, is that beginning and ending are the same in the latter. This creates a never-ending cycle.
I once met a man who told me that, as a little boy, he was given a model of Metamorphosis II to play with. He thought Escher had constructed a cupboard with an open ‘window’. The work featured a handle, which was used to turn the spectacle along the window. If my memory serves me correctly, the man and his brothers loved nothing more than endlessly rotating Metamorphosis II. The man’s account of his childhood was partly the reason for us mounting the 48 meter long Metamorphosis III in a round frame as part of our exhibition.
Metamorphosis III is based on Metamorphosis II. The 4 meter long Metamorphosis II was extended by 115 inches in June 1967 and in the first months of 1968. Or, as Escher wrote to his son: I feel compelled to ‘add new metamorphoses, or transitional stages.’ He hopes it will be a successful venture:
“It’s perfectly possible, but it’s quite a job. I’m curious to see whether it’ll turn out as I can visualize it now, vaguely, in my mind’s eye.”
By staging a permanent exhibition, we are able to show visitors how Escher’s thinking evolved over the decades. Seeing these three works alongside each other enhances our understanding of Escher’s development. Visitors could easily dedicate a few hours just to this series alone. Only then can you truly comprehend what went on inside Escher’s head. In Metamorphosis I, Escher discovered a new concept: this is the first work in which he uses the tessellation technique to transform one image into another in a seemingly random fashion. The realistic depiction of the Italian town of Atrani gradually and relatively ‘simplistically’ morphs into a figure. Tessellations are patterns of identical shapes that seamlessly interlock and can be repeated endlessly. This explains why these wonderful shapes are sometimes referred to as ’tiles’. If, like Escher, you choose to depict abstract notions such as eternity and perpetuity, tessellated/tiling patterns are the ideal way to achieve this. In fact, you can’t wish for anything more pleasing.
M.C. Escher was a fun and playful character. He did not believe in creating rigid or inflexible transitions. The evolution from Metamorphosis II to Metamorphosis III involves more than just changes in appearance and shape. He referred to his approach as follows:
“a playful, childlike toying with imagery and thought associations, which more or less randomly followed on from each other without any attempt at profundity.”
That is why it is important that people who are unable to visit The Hague in person to see this series, view the video clip of Metamorphosis III. If you watch the video several times, your initial amazement at Escher’s technical prowess will slowly ebb away. Gradually, you will be able to focus more on the content. Marvel at how the word ‘metamorphose’ transforms into pictorial images! After an indistinct grey, the letters turn into a block pattern. These blocks, in turn, evolve into a chess board that starts to dance and culminates in a series of events.
We see a close-up of two insects crawling across a stylised gold-white floor of red and white flowers. After the repetitive chess board motif, an entirely different evolution begins: the black and white squares are now in essence ‘smeared’ around the edges. These geometric figurines morph into interlocking salamanders. Incidentally, this theme is reminiscent of Escher’s Reptiles (1943), which depicts a desk on which you see a drawing of salamanders. The salamanders come to life and crawl around the desk and over the objects on it to eventually – and amazingly – re-enter the drawing at the other end. The salamanders gradually change into hexagonal shapes, which, in turn, realistically transform into a honeycomb from which bees take flight.
This reasonably elaborate description and the close-ups of the beginning of Metamorphosis III illustrate Escher’s approach. The plain text gradually morphs into an illusion of three-dimensional animals. The background reverts to a plain space via the simple black and white chequered pattern. From the transition to the schematically depicted salamanders, Escher takes us to a spherical honeycomb that releases a battalion of crawling and flying bees. From flat to spherical, from geometric shapes to hyper-realism, everything is precisely as Escher describes:
“a playful, childlike toying with imagery and thought associations.”
Within a meter of the beginning, you can find yourself stumbling and gasping in amazement. What is happening here? Because of all these surprising changes, you almost forget that you are at the end of a never-ending circle and that you are, in fact, looking at the same pattern as in the beginning: the word ‘metamorphose’ that disappears into a grey plane. If you look closely, you will see that a small, black full stop has been incorporated to mark the beginning and end. This takes us back to the grey plane, the grid pattern of words etc., etc.
Many of our visitors walk around Metamorphosis III three or four times, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are seeing the same things. After all, some details only become apparent on a second or third viewing, and it is difficult to remember every single detail. The motifs, quirky details and playful, remarkable changes are so rich and vast, that you cannot possibly take it all in at once.
Eternity and perpetuity are abstract notions. How do you show that man is part of a much grander scheme? In the second half of the twentieth century, people believed that non-figurative art -abstract art- was the best way to convey this notion. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) spent much of his working life seeking to establish a ‘dynamic balance’. Thousands of abstract artists tried to encapsulate their vision of contemporary society and the future. Maurits Cornelis Escher sought eternity not in abstraction, but in surprise. He wanted to surprise and delight his audience. He was to become the undisputed master of shrewd optical illusion, which means that you don’t immediately notice that a salamander is in fact a bee taking flight. And that is only the beginning!
As mentioned previously, Escher in The Palace has mounted Metamorphosis III in a special round frame. Anyone who purchased a stamp at Kerkplein Post Office in The Hague between February 1969 and October 2008 was in for an extra treat. With Escher’s consent, the Dutch postal service P.T.T. commissioned Henk Vooys, an 18-year-old resident of Katwijk, to reproduce the nearly 7 meter long woodcut onto linen cloth. The result? A huge, 48 meter long Metamorphosis spanned high above the counters! It must have been quite a sight to behold. The enormous work has meanwhile been transferred to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, given passers-by something to feast their eyes on!