M. C. Escher thought the passion for tiling, symmetry and infinity reflected in his woodcuts meant he wasn’t a “real” artist. Luckily, as Robin Lutz’s playful doc makes clear, the future knew better, says Simon Ings
ROBIN LUTZ’S documentary about Maurits Cornelis Escher begins near the end of his life. Escher, one of the Netherlands’s most famous artists, and by then in his late 60s, is discovered by California’s counterculture.
For the life of him he can’t understand why. Escher’s hyper-rational, mathematically sophisticated woodcuts aren’t even art as far as he is concerned. And now a bunch of hippies are zoning out on them. Colouring them. Making them into place mats. Mick Jagger even wants him to design an album cover.
Escher’s acid reply to Jagger is delivered with relish by actor-broadcaster Stephen Fry, who reads from the artist’s voluminous correspondence and diaries throughout the documentary.
English singer-songwriter Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) had a better time of it. When he phoned to say what a great artist he thought Escher was, they got talking. Escher told Nash that he thought his own interest in symmetry, tiling and representing infinity disqualified him from being an artist, in the proper sense. Artists pursue beauty, he mused in his diary: “Perhaps I only pursue wonder.”
Advances in mathematics, computation and psychology have made nonsense of that distinction. Escher’s subject was perception. He might not have considered that art, but opinions have moved on there now.
Nash believed that Escher’s reputation would only grow posthumously. In his good-humoured and increasingly playful documentary, Lutz strongly agrees.
“The camera is an informed eye here, explaining Escher’s work, not turning it into visual effects”
Achieving, after a lifetime’s effort, a satisfying representation of infinity, Escher still berated himself: “I am starting to speak a language that is understood by very few,” he wrote. But isn’t this what true artists do? Aren’t they supposed to become more like themselves and less like others?
It is interesting to compare him with his close contemporary, the mathematician Kurt Gödel. Both preferred study to self-expression. And both gave themselves a hard time: Gödel believed himself to be lazy; Escher reckoned that he couldn’t draw. Yet Escher enjoyed a lifetime of fascinated striving. “It is,” he once remarked of his career, “and remains, the game of a child.”
Escher is also revealed through photographs, home movies and interviews with two of his children. Clearly, he relished his marriage, family and home, though life wasn’t always easy. The second world war kept them largely housebound, and they nearly starved to death. Later, his wife Jetta slowly succumbed to dementia. You can call Escher’s art cold and distant, but the man was never that.
Lutz harnesses the talents of animators and graphic designers to create a film that starts in the real world, but slowly, subtly slides into the phantasmagoric, monochrome world of Escher’s imagination. Warped perspectives straighten to reveal their secrets. Long, panning shots combine with prints to reveal how tiles mutate into living forms, then back to geometrical figures. The camera is an informed eye here, explaining Escher’s work, not turning it into visual effects.
Escher believed the only person who could properly film his work was himself – and that the result would be awfully boring. I hope he is watching this, tucked away in some hidden dimension.
Simon also recommends…
An unemployed number theorist sees patterns everywhere and loses his mind (or does he?) in Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, a gothic homage to the mathematical mind.
Lewis Carroll and Edwin Abbott, move over! The prolific and wildly diverse output of this computer scientist and mathematician includes some era-defining sci-fi.
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