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Looking into the mirror

Has this ever happened to you? You’re walking along a familiar shopping street when something suddenly catches your attention in a shop window. For a moment you don’t recognise the scene reflected back to you and it leaves you feeling slightly disoriented. The unfamiliar aspect of an otherwise familiar scene turns your day upside down. The different image that caught your eye continues to play on your mind and leaves you wondering, “What was it that I saw?”

The images created by Escher sometimes have the same effect. We can already see this in one of his early prints, Still Life with mirror, a lithograph produced in 1934. To begin with, all you see is a dressing table with a mirror in a wood frame. You might pause for a moment and look a little more closely at the brass candlestick and candle, which are depicted with such technical expertise. And you might also notice that one of the corners of the mirror rests on a little round box, which holds the mirror at an angle. You see the glass with the toothbrush, the little hanging basket and the card with a religious image on it stuck in the corner of the mirror, but you don’t really take it in. In fact, many of the people who come to our museum simply carry on around the corner into the next room, almost without stopping.

And yet they can’t quite leave it at that. There is something nagging at them. There was something odd about that work… What was it? They walk back to have another look. Ah! That’s what it was! There’s a street reflected in the mirror. And then suddenly it dawns on them: a STREET in THAT mirror? Since the mirror is tilted at an angle, the street reflected in the mirror would have to be up at an angle behind their head!

In this lithograph Escher combines two completely unrelated spaces. And he does it in such a clever way that it is not immediately obvious. Yet, the image continues to play on your mind. Somehow you know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. You’re left trying to resolve a visual riddle. There was something odd about that image. What was it?

Once you work it out, you’re probably amazed at how cleverly Escher tricks the eye, and how slow you were to spot it. At first glance you didn’t notice that you were being presented with an optical illusion, despite the fact that Escher often plays with our perception in this way. You are surprised and amazed by this work. In fact, amazement is one of the emotions that Escher returns to repeatedly in his work. He wants the viewer to share his sense of amazement. He worded this beautifully in 1959: “He who wonders discovers that this in itself is wonder.”

And what could be better than to be overcome by a sense of wonder while walking through a room in a museum? You suddenly enter a different reality where your thoughts run away with you. If the street you can see in the mirror is hovering behind your head, what else might happen to you? Escher shows us hands drawing each other. He gives us the experience of simultaneously looking down on and gazing up at a little boy sitting on a flight of stairs talking to his mother. He enchants us by depicting figures ascending and descending capsizing stairs and by convincing us that we can see water running upwards.

M.C. Escher, Drawing hands, lithograph, January 1948
M.C. Escher, Up and down, lithograph in brown, July 1947

M.C. Escher, Relativity, woodcut, July 1953
M.C. Escher, Waterfall, lithograph, October 1961

In 1959 Escher explained that in each print he tried to:

“communicate a specific line of thought. The ideas that are basic to my prints often bear witness to my amazement and wonder at the laws of nature which operate in the world around us.”

Street in Villalago
Street in Villalago, mirrored and turned

In Still Life with mirror we see one of his early successful attempts to combine two unrelated spaces in an ingenious way. In this case he unites a distant external world, a street in the little town of Villalago (shown in the photo) in the Abruzzo region of Italy, with a classic intimate still life.

The same thing happens, albeit in a slightly less extreme way, in Still Life and Street, a woodcut Escher produced in 1937. In this image the foreground runs straight into the background. This is another visual trick, but it is not an optical illusion. By placing the ash tray with the pipe and the playing cards so prominently in the foreground, Escher creates the impression that the objects are so close you can almost reach out and touch them. Then, as you look up, you are immediately transported to the corner at the end of the narrow little street.

The corner engages your curiosity. You feel compelled to move straight towards it, rather than gradually making your way along the little street. You only do that on second glance, but by then you have registered the corner in the distance and experienced the sensation of speed.

I think Escher would have been fascinated by the digital age in which we live. I’m sure he would have felt compelled to create optical illusions that explore the interfaces between the different worlds that are now possible. On the other hand, I sometimes think it’s just as well that M.C.Escher isn’t alive and working today. It’s difficult enough to gain a sense of mental repose when you look at his static images. Just imagine the effects Escher could create if he also incorporated the virtual world!

All quotes taken from:

M.C. Escher, “Grafiek en Tekeningen, ingeleid en toegelicht door de graficus” [Prints and drawings by M.C. Escher, with an introduction and commentary by the artist], the Taschen GMBH 2006 re-edition of the book originally published by Royal Publishing J.J.Tijl NV, Zwolle 1959.

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