Building Mind Palaces: MC Escher
I became interested in the works of MC Escher after watching Inception, five years after the hype of the film (and its controversial ending) died down. It was the very first movie I watched in Blu-ray, 2160p. The quality was so high that I could count Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s individual eyelashes from my seat on the floor, an acceptable distance of one foot away from the television screen. The high definition and the reality-warping cinematography had my mind scrambling to make sense of it all. Later, in a Wikipedia frenzy, I discovered that one of the main inspirations for the film was M.C. Escher: graphic artist, illusionist, and visionary.
Delving into Escher’s artwork is like navigating a Penrose staircase – you don’t know if you’re tumbling down or climbing up. The second you think you can make heads or tails of one of his lithographs, you are mistaken. Of course, his art is more than the just the element of trickery; after all, he was not the one who first created the “impossible” Penrose illusions, although he was friends with the man who had. His art is unique because it shows how illusion plays out in a wildly imaginative, architectural mind. In “Ascending and Descending,” for example, his hooded figures walk in a never-ending square, faces hidden like members of an secretive religious order. Why do they look completely alike? What is the building they choose to traverse ad infinitum? Did Escher mean to criticize the monotony of life, or marvel at its orderliness?
A son of a civil engineer, Escher originally attended school to become an architect, but soon changed his career path to study graphic design instead. He traveled extensively through Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, and the design of buildings he saw on his journeys appear in his work. The Alhambra, a Moorish castle he saw in Granada, Spain, sparked his interest in tessellations. Yet Escher wasn’t a one-trick pony, either. In his lifetime, he made 448 woodcuts and lithographs, and over 2000 sketches and drawings. Many of them depicted the gravity-defying mathematical prints for which Escher became widely known, but others depict faces, animals, and surreal landscapes. Despite his work ethic, he only rose to prominence in his later years. Even then, he seemed uninterested in the trappings of fame. He infamously turned down Mick Jagger’s request to have his art on a Rolling Stones album cover, and Stanley Kubrick’s request for help on a dimension-breaking film.
However, regardless of any popularity, fine art collections have excluded Escher. Many curators chalked down his popular artwork to a cheap trick of the eye, or overwrought graphic design. They thought his art was interesting enough for a second glance, but with the illusion discerned, rather worthless. Only recently has the art world begun to think otherwise, probably due in part to the new dimensions of Escher’s art that Inception has revealed. Still, it will be a long while before the fine arts appreciate Escher, and that’s okay. The general public have always loved Escher more than any fine art institution has, and with the movie-watching population clued in to the buzz, the trend will likely continue. In fact, with space-defying puzzle games like Monument Valley showing up on the app scene, there is already evidence that Escher remains relevant. It’s also okay because I know what Escher means to me.
Not long after discovering Escher, I picked up a habit of doodling little Penrose triangles in the margins of my notebooks, in Sharpie on my wrist, and on sticky notes between novels. I was fascinated that a surface could simultaneously end and start depending on which corner you picked, little infinities packed into the microcosm of a geometric shape. Although these triangles were small, they were also large, and contained multitudes. And maybe that stubborn refusal to be finite is the same thing I see in Escher. And maybe it is the same thing I recognize in myself. And maybe it is the same thing I identify in the universe, conserving its matter and energy yet expanding outward in the most multitudinous mystery of all.
Sooke, Alastair. “The secret story of MC Escher.” BBC, BBC, 25 June 2015, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150625-the-secret-story-of-mc-escher.
Please visit http://www.mcescher.com for more information on MC Escher.