New M.C. Escher Documentary Traces the Colorful Life of a Mathematician at Heart

“I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself,” Maurits Cornelis Escher wrote to an American collector in 1969. This quote, which appears at the beginning of Robin Lutz’s new documentary about the famed Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, is one of many statements Escher made during his life about how his visually hypnotic works might translate into moving images.

The new film by Lutz, which will be released theatrically in select U.S. cities and digitally on February 5, aspires to give Escher the kind of autonomy he craved with respect to such a project. Archival photographs of Escher’s youth, images of his works, and new animations based on his art are set to readings from his diaries, lectures, and letters, narrated with gusto by the actor Stephen Fry. Punctuated by commentary from two of Escher’s sons and many avid followers of his work, Fry’s recitations of the artist’s own words, if a bit theatrical and tedious at times, offer an entrancing look at how Escher became so fascinated by mathematics and the magical possibilities of patterns.

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity takes a largely chronological approach to telling Escher’s life. It traces his upbringing in a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century and his time studying at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. During his youth, he would revel in the overwhelming quality of the organ music at St. Bartholomew’s church in Haarlem, and the layers of otherworldly sounds he heard there would inform his later interest in creating illimitable tessellations, paradoxical architectures, and other scenes that produce dizzying and dazzling effects.

Early in his career, Escher spent an extended period in Tuscany, where he ruminated on the shocking blueness of the sky and created many prints of the landscape. “My poor eyes are staring and my poor brain is trying to comprehend the incomprehensible,” he once wrote of the scenes he encountered there, a statement might be interpreted as a kind of prophetic proposition for viewers of his later works. The film tells how Escher met Jetta Umiker, who he married in 1924, during his stay in Ravello, Italy, and how, when the couple moved to Rome, the artist would work in a studio on the top floor of their apartment, often taking to the city’s street at night to sketch its architecture. 

The most important thing I remember is the smell—the smell of the printing ink when he started printing was wonderful,” George, Escher’s eldest son, says in the documentary. “The ink nowadays doesn’t smell nearly as good.”

M.C. Escher, 'Hand with Mirror'

M. C. Escher, Hand with Mirror.

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity also explores how the Escher family was impacted by the rise of fascism in Italy. They left Italy when George was 10—he said in the film that his parents wanted to shield him from his friends’ “fascist activities” like marching and wearing black caps—for the frigid Swiss mountains. During this period, Escher took on a rather unexpected job, creating 12 prints for an Italian shipping company to be used as advertising aimed at tourists.

Less unexpected but illuminating all the same is a segment of the documentary about how Escher was deeply impacted by the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain, which he visited at the end of his stint at sea. Within the intricately patterned tiles and carvings at Alhambra he encountered “a motif that repeats itself according to a certain system,” as he once described it. When the Escher family subsequently moved to Belgium, just before the outbreak of World War II, he began to create the topsy-turvy scenes that he would one day be known for worldwide.

The remainder of the film focuses on Escher’s most famous works, in his own words. During the years just before the war, he increasingly focused on mathematics rather than aesthetics, much to the bewilderment of his friends who knew his earlier oeuvre. This was the beginning of Escher’s long pursuit of the “idea of expressing endlessness within a limited plane,” as he once put it. Though the artist took a hiatus from printmaking and drawing during the war to take care of his family’s needs—his wife’s struggle with mental health is a recurring subject in the film—Escher’s work started to garner widespread attention in the 1950s when it was featured in both Time and Life magazines.

M.C. Escher, 'Waterfall'

M. C. Escher, Waterfall.

In the following decade, Escher was diagnosed with colon cancer, and he became reclusive, fixating on his elaborate processions of creatures and wildly structured worlds. He insisted for much of his life that he was not an artist but rather a mathematician, and he was perplexed when countercultural movements of the 1960s—hippies, in particular—reprinted his works in electric colors as opposed to their original black-and-white formats. Balking at what he saw as an incongruous pairing of tastes, Escher once said that his work was “cerebral and rationalized, instead of wild and sexy.”

There’s something fittingly paradoxical about the fact that Escher’s visual puzzles—the product of mathematical formulae turned against themselves, the artist maintained—should be so appreciated by people interested in dismantling the status quo. The film does not downplay this strange phenomenon, and it is a perfect encapsulation of the artfulness and ineffability of Escher’s work that he would shy away from for much of his life as he pursued new frontiers on the two-dimensional plane.

The musician Graham Nash, of the band Crosby, Stills & Nash, is interviewed at the beginning and end of the documentary, attesting to the enduring influence of Escher’s work. He mentions that new avenues of meaning might be revealed as one continues to gaze at one of his prints or drawings.

“Escher taught me to see differently,” Nash said. “And I’m very thankful for that.”

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity examines the Dutch graphic artist’s wide-reaching cultural impact.Read MoreARTnews, Reviews, M.C. EscherARTnews.comRead More

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