Early on in this documentary, there’s an interview with Graham Nash, him out of Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Hollies. Some time in the 1960s, Nash got hold of the ageing Escher’s phone number and rang him up to tell him how much he appreciated Escher as an artist. “I’m not an Artist”, says Escher, “I’m a Mathematician”. You can see his point.
The film’s narrative is largely taken from readings from Escher’s notebooks and journals. In an early quote he says “I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself ”. He is supplemented by a number of talking heads, including Nash but also his two sons – still alive at the ages of 80 and 92.
The film takes us through Escher’s life and interests from the vast Dutch countryside to an early long boat trip which made him appreciate endless landscapes. Most important was an early visit to Spain, after the Eschers left Italy, worried that their elder son was a little too interested in Mussolini’s youth group. Escher’s wife may have left Soviet Russia “to escape the Bolsheviks”, but they were no more fond of nascent Fascism.
In Southern Spain, Escher stumbled across the Alhambra, and saw the colourful mosaics containing repetitive patterns. Moving from interiors of the Alhambra to Escher’s early works (mainly monochrome wood cuts), the similarities are clear, even more so after Escher started his colour pictures of multiple fishes.
As Escher gets older, his work develops, including the ones we all know – the endless waterfall, the steps going permanently upwards (or downwards) and the hands drawing themselves. There’s nothing that disabused me of my feeling that Escher’s work is more to be admired than loved – there’s a certain clinical heartlessness to it all – but it is very impressive.
We also see how Escher moves from just showing multiple copies of the same image, and starts to play with perspective, with pictures showing the same image in different sizes. Again, it is all very clever, but is it Art? (to which Escher’s answer would presumably be “No. And it shouldn’t have to be”).
Yet he does show affinity with other forms of art, not least the music of Bach, which shares the simplicity and repetitiveness of many of his creations. It is interesting (to me at least) to compare the works of these 2 artists who seemed most closest to aligning their art with the certainties of science and mathematics.
We also experience Escher’s brief and uncomfortable brush with fame. After decades of being largely ignored by the artistic establishment, Escher suddenly found himself championed by San Francisco hippies, who reproduced his black and white woodcuts as psychedelic posters – usually without asking his permission or paying him any duties.
Escher seems both gratified and perplexed by the interest of a community that he doesn’t understand. We hear of a communication with a certain Mick Jagger who asks him if he can draw something for the next Rolling Stones album. Escher politely declines, signing off “by the way, you should not address me as Maurits. Its MC Escher to you”. To further twist the knife, the German narrative clearly uses the formal “Sie” version of you.
At the end of the film, there is a speed through a number of popular culture signifiers which are clearly influenced by Escher – from street art to ballet to Labyrinth (always good to see David Bowie in that shock wig). In the background we hear Bach – not the sedate piano pieces that Escher preferred but the jazzed up version of Toccata by Sky and John Williams.
Its all kind of apt. Escher is a very modern artist who appears to belong to a time that we’ve left behind. I do think that his best work is that that makes you think rather than feel, the paradoxes rather than beautiful brush strokes, but the world is much better for his presence. And this film makes a fitting tribute.