In the works of M.C. Escher, movement plays an important role in a number of different ways. In Bonifacio and in Castrovalva, I wrote about the movement that the viewer’s eyes make, or are forced to make, when looking at some of Escher’s prints. Secondly, Escher depicts movement through changes in shape, for example in the three Metamorphoses which he created between 1937 and 1968. The third type of movement that typifies the work of M.C. Escher is perpetual motion: the infinite cycle of movement as depicted in Möbius strip II,Horseman and of course in Waterfall, in which water flows upstream, falls down onto the water wheel and then flows upstream again.
And then, to my amazement, I slowly discovered another, fourth, type of movement. The figurative movement that goes on inside your head as you try to unravel and make sense of a special work of art. In the case of Other world, you will be amazed at what you can see if you take the time and the effort to look closely at the work. We are looking into space. That much is clear. But how exactly are we looking at this space?
I always feel as though I am looking through the glass ceiling of a small cubic room made from brick down onto the moon at the top of the print through a series of windows. When I look to the left and straight ahead of me, I look across the lunar surface. But, in fact, I am simultaneously looking – from the bottom of the print through the window past the moon – into space. My poor brain struggles to make sense of this all, and even now – after ten years – I still feel my head spinning when looking at this print.
The little room is a misleading, spatially impossible construction. Escher creates this effect by meticulously carving out tiny chequered patterns that evoke the illusion of bricks. He bolsters our sense of reality by adding columns on both sides. However, those columns support the archways in all directions, consistent with the perspective of the windows and their respective spaces.
Escher repeats this clever game with the horn, which is suspended in space in the window and can therefore be viewed from all vantage points. An added visual element is the Simurgh*, a mythical creature from ancient Persian art and literature, which he has placed in the window ledge. The different perspectives of the little statue and the horn are mathematically correct, as are the columns of the windows in which they are framed. The creature depicted in window 1, from where we look down onto the surface of the moon, can also be seen from above. In window 2, we are looking straight at the creature through the window across the surface of the moon. In window 3, we see the creature from below, because we are looking into space past the moon.
This clever optical illusion twists my poor brain into knots, because when I put a reproduction of this work in front of me on the table and slowly but surely turn it around, I feel my head a lot less spinning. As long as I concentrate on that one window that appears along the top, a perspective emerges that my eyes and brains can comprehend.
It is fascinating to experience first-hand how Escher is capable of seducing the viewer into making this simultaneous triple observation, and how he incorporates virtually unnoticeable transitions near the chequered motifs.
A few months before Escher set to work on Other world, he made the mezzotint Gallery. In January 1950, Escher wrote to his close friend, the engineer and art collector Paul Kessler:
“Gallery dated XII-’46 drove me to despair; I finally completed it in April 1949. Other world is a follow-up to this, and the elongated lithograph Up and down follows on from this one.”
The similarities and the contrasts between Other world and Gallery are remarkable. Both prints depict a fictitious building floating in space. In a 1947 interview with the monthly periodical Phoenix**, Escher talks about a number of themes, including the little room featured in Other world. He explains that the print explores the possibility of viewing your surroundings like a bird, because it allows you to see everything from every conceivable vantage point. As Escher puts it, ‘at a glance’ the bird looks ‘straight ahead, to the left and to the right, up and down’. In the 21st century, we are no longer awestruck by multiple perspectives at once due to for instance television. In Escher’s day, however, the desire to create a multiple perspective was way ahead of its time!
It appears that Escher’s first impulse was to amalgamate the total surroundings into one print. In the case of Gallery, he chooses space to turn this vision into reality. However, in Gallery the viewer is sucked into the perspective. The instantly spinning effect of Other world only takes hold of you in Gallery when you actually start looking for it. In principle, this work offers a single perspective and the viewer is instantly sucked into the abyss. Consequently, the fact that the view from the top window differs from that of the bottom window is easily overlooked, no matter how cleverly Escher has pieced everything together. The repetitive pattern of the row of dark windows dominates the viewer’s gaze. In Other world, on the other hand, your brain is almost instantly tied into a knot.
There are two other notable differences between Gallery and its successor Other world: in Other world, every window features either a standing Simurgh, or a hanging horn. In Gallery, a small air ship is suspended above the creature and both objects feature in all of the windows. Oddly enough, in my opinion, the two objects create a far more static image than in Other world, where they ingeniously alternate. If, like Escher, you want to create a 365-degree view, then Other world is a successful attempt; however fascinating Gallery is in its own right.
When I first read Escher’s letter to his friend Paul Kessler, I was taken aback by his reference to Up and down. The print depicts a natural movement from top to bottom. Of course, the big surprise happens in the centre of the picture, when the up-down orientation shifts. However, unlike Other world, I’ve always found this print comparatively static, until I realised that this central point is also visible in the top half and in the bottom half of the print. In other words, if you were to lay copies of the print end to end, the top and the bottom would seamlessly link up, creating an endlessly repetitive motif.
If you piece together the three prints – something that is impossible in reality but can be achieved digitally – you will instantly understand why Escher made the comparison between Other world and Up and down!
Discoveries such as these confirm my suspicion that the great hidden themes in the work of M.C. Escher are eternity and perpetuity: eternal motion in an infinite space. Yet ultimately, Escher’s work is all about creating a world of bedazzlement and wonder. Besides optical illusions, he experimented with perpetual motion; changing shapes and tessellatated figures. All of these elements take centre stage at some point. Sometimes this occurs in the work itself, and sometimes the magic takes place inside your head.
Escher is a generous man: for him, there is no greater delight than to allow us to marvel at his amazing, mind-blowing creations.
The parents of Escher’s wife had gifted them a little statue of the Simurgh as a wedding present. In 1926, the couple moved into their second apartment in Rome, and took six photographs of the interior on 19 January. These photos show Escher seated at the table, Jetta reading the newspaper, etc. On these two photos, the fabulous creature can be spotted.
* The Simurgh is a mythical creature from ancient Persian art and literature which, like the Phoenix in Christian symbolism, represents the eternal spirit of life, death and rebirth.
** Phoenix, monthly journal of the visual arts, Volume 2, No. 4, June 1947; in the column ‘Graphic Artists of the Netherlands Speak of Their Work’.