Escher’s Infinite Worlds

The Harvard Advocate
Winter 2010

We climb out of the paper onto the table, our bodies pushing up from the flat surface into the studio’s cool dry air. In the artist’s sketchbook, our reptilian figures interlock seamlessly, limb jigsawing against limb in perfect tessellation. There’s a certain comfort in the way we fit together: it’s like it was always meant to be this way, this nestling, for eternity. But all it takes is a concerted effort of the mind—a few strokes of the pencil—to burst into another plane. And then we’re free, slithering or two-stepping or careening belly-forward into unbroken space, escaping at last the drawing of which we’d been part.

Before we can take any real delight in our new bodies, here comes the academic tripping up to us with his notepad—What drawing is this? What strange beasts are we? Such information may be easily obtained on the shelves of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the national library of the Netherlands in The Hague (easily accessible via Centraal station and the Trambaan). A plump, homely, good-natured little Dutchwoman sits there forever smiling at the front desk, pleased to draw out any fact from the archives the interested scholar desires. Title: Reptiles. Year: 1943. Artist: M.C. Escher. Medium: lithograph. Dimensions: 33.4 cm x 38.5 cm. Or, if our intrepid questioner is more scientifically inclined, he may consult the medical encyclopedias in the upstairs galleries, where labels projecting from anatomical diagrams designate the various parts of Paleosuchus palpebrosus in a clear, neat hand. One may spend many hours here, reclining in the firm yet comfortable armchairs the reading room provides, turning the pages steadily in the soft glow of a lamp as the windows darken into panels of night.

Yet you, we know, do not wish to travel so far afield. Please, let us instead be your guides; let us be the ones to whisper into your ear what we know of the mathematics of our own existence, the Penrose triangles of our being, the ontological helicoids that find illumination not in any one moment but within the vast and endless spectrum of time. Sharing our thoughts with you is no great burden—no, it is even a relief to unweigh ourselves of them—to find diversion from these endless loops, in which our only topic of thought is the limitless paradox of our own minds.

Let us stop there, for we feel our insincerity mounting as we strain to impress. It would be better to turn to the tangible things in our image, the items we pass again and again with every additional spin. There’s some sort of cactus-like plant, its roots in gravel in a clean white ceramic pot. A small glass rests beside a corked bottle, unmarked, against which it casts its shadow. In the upper right a book is propped open; one page lies in shade, curling at the corner. Then, of course, there is the reference book, the triangular plane, the dodecahedron (the high point of the drawing, where we stop for a minute to blow a celebratory puff of smoke), the metal bucket: this is the obstacle course over which we run all day long, moving out from the sketchbook into the open air before flattening out to make yet another round of the circuit.

There was a time, decades or maybe eons ago, when these objects meant something to us. Now they’re just part of the scenery. But they do still mean something, to some viewers, anyway. Of all the hundreds of images Escher created—woodcuts, lithographs, mezzotints, nearly all conjuring up optical illusions or complex perspectival constructions—“Reptiles,” we are proud to say, remains one of his most discussed. By the cactus, for instance, there’s a dark, lozenge-like box on which the word “JOB” is elegantly inscribed: a packet of Belgian cigarette papers. (Like all good 20th century European artists, Escher smoked heavily.) Many have assumed it instead to be a reference to the Book of Job, and read into it all the accompanying theological subtexts. Escher, we know, was amused by these interpretations of his images, which he personally thought escaped symbolism. He particularly enjoyed retelling the story of a woman who rang him up to say: “Mr. Escher, I am absolutely crazy about your work. In your print ‘Reptiles’ you have given such a striking illustration of reincarnation.” “Madame,” he replied slyly, “if that’s the way you see it, so be it.”

In the late ’60s, English glam rock band Mott the Hoople tinted the monochrome tones of our original print in primary colors and slapped it onto the cover of their self-titled album debut. Around the same time, “Reptiles” took on an odd second life as an iconic college dorm poster, a generation of undergrads mistaking the cigarette papers for joints. Tacked up above someone’s half-made bed, we looked down as earnest co-eds, sprawled in armchairs, talked solemnly of love and revolution. It would have been too cruel to point out that our image could just as easily have been used to defend a radical conservatism: that as much as we move, nothing ever changes. Better to remain silent, to let them keep on, sketching out their dreams with one finger like invisible shapes, holding them close like the heads of small children requiring reassurance to endure a terror-filled night.

And the influence of Escher lingers, especially in the realm of pop culture. The Japanese video game Echochrome, which takes him as inspiration, challenges the player to search out various locations on a constantly rotating shape. A Simpsons episode has Homer chase fruitlessly after Bart over a series of impossible steps. Calendars featuring prints like “House of Stairs” allow the viewer to ponder segmented creatures and Möbius strip-like platforms for all of January.

That Escher is appreciated primarily through copies or adaptations—rather than gilt-framed museum pieces—is not insignificant. We’re meant to be multiplied, to derive our meaning from replication and reproduction. Just imagine: if reality were an Escher print, our likenesses too would extend into the distance, stretching forward in smoky lines into some horizon without end.

But you’re not here anymore; you’re miles away, and sunlight is falling in thick colorless shafts over the city (composed, you note, entirely of trim, repeating quadrilaterals). It’s one of those magnesium-bright days, the kind of day on which every building and person and blade of grass imprints in such dazzling relief you feel you can pluck them up and set them down with only your mind. The clear morning air renders everything pure and achingly gorgeous as a silver-gelatin afterglow. It’s too cold to be outside for long, though; hands curl into miserable balls in your pockets, and you’ve forgotten your gloves at home.There is a building before you: you enter.

Take a minute to get your bearings. The Escher Museum, where you find yourself now, opened seven years ago in The Hague and remains a popular destination for families and flâneurs alike. The structure in which it is housed is the Lange Voorhout Palace, owned by the Dutch royal family; a giant poster of Escher’s print “Day and Night,” flanked by two vertical red banners, decorates the rectangular façade. Drifting slowly through the rooms, visitors can examine photographs, letters, preliminary sketches, all the accumulated detritus of a prolific life. A flashing multimedia presentation, screening on a back wall, provides biographical and chronological perspective.

Something about Escher’s work makes it jarring to consider him in this context. March 27, 1972, the date Escher passed away, was also the date of the second Watergate break-in; most of his most famous prints were created in the midst of World War II and its direct aftermath. But knowing these details will not heighten your appreciation of his compositions. If Escher’s prints have any revolutionary potential, it is that they depend on no individual author, existing instead beyond time and space. Nobody really thinks about Escher as a person; their creator stands outside his creation as a universal figure, the overly analytical intellect or the youth obsessed with the playthings of his own imagination. Walking through this museum, looking at the items it holds, you realize that all these objects are anonymous: that they could belong to anybody, anywere.

At some point, the artist himself does enter. He tilts his head downward as he peers at us, so that his angular features, his long face and neck appear oddly foreshortened from this angle. “Reptiles” took years for Escher to conceive and execute—an early sketch done in pen, ink, and watercolor was discovered from 1939, four years before the final version was completed. Deservedly proud of his efforts, he occasionally still pulls our print from the sleeve to admire the final delicate details, the flawless finish.

Today, partly because of its reproducibility, much of Escher’s work is dismissed as kitsch, as gimmicks or tricks of the pen. It’s always been those at the cultural periphery who have trumpeted most loudly the genius of his arithmetical compositions. The art world never really took him seriously, criticizing his images for being both too cerebral and too easily accessible: for appealing, as one critic put it, to “scientists and stoned kids… Renditions of easily grasped intellectual and sentimental conceits, laced with the bizarre, they yield their essences with alacrity.” To Escher’s devotees, the pleasure of looking at his pictures lies in just that: the immediate joy of their painstaking paradoxes, the peculiar way they adhere rigorously to the laws of geometry even as they distort them.

Kicking through piles of data searching for clues or any formal training to explain his talent, these enthusiasts manage to turn up only the dead leaves of external inspiration: a brief stint as an architect, a journey to examine Moorish mosaics in the Mediterranean, a father and three brothers trained as mathematicians and engineers. Escher drew mostly on inner resources, relying on intuition to anticipate with his hand and eye what would later become the field of crystallography. A geometer-admirer searching for empirical evidence of his greatness reported with satisfaction that his drawings and prints were so exact as to achieve precision down to the millimeter.

But accuracy alone can’t explain why people keep returning to us, or to any Escher print. They keep coming back because our impossible worlds offer a way to abolish the constraints of the physical universe: because as long as we keep moving in our infinite loops, spatio-temporal boundaries simply cease to matter anymore. Perhaps you know this already. You’re sitting in your armchair with a drink, you’re reading this page, the glass you’re holding is cold against your lips, and when you set it down on the table, you prick your finger on the cactus so sharp to the touch: now the surface of the paper is dissolving beneath your gaze, now the book is firm beneath your clawed feet, now you’re scurrying up the ramp, stopping to exhale, tumbling back down into the sketchbook, nosing your way out to start once more. Don’t you see? You’re one of us, you’ve been one of for as long as you’ve been here, looking at these words and thinking about this image. All that remains is to set one foot in front of the next and begin again.

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