What convention?

What convention?

What convention?

Varshini Murali is refreshed by theperspectives   the Escher Museum in Netherlands offers, as the Dutch artist’s works meander the concepts of eternity and infinity...

“An impossible situation only really stands out when the impossibility is not immediately obvious,” M C Escher once said. And even as you take in the famous Dutch graphic artist’s works of art — where birds seamlessly evolve into fish, and rivers naturally flow upstream — you can’t help but buy into his abstract logic, one which seems to embody a rather famous piece of advertising copy: Impossible is nothing.

At the Escher Museum in The Hague, located within the regal walls of the former Winter Palace of Queen Mother Emma, one is (re)introduced to a missing sense of mystery; mystery that “does not immediately hit the eye,” as Escher put it, yet, it’s very much there, waiting for us to grab on to that which is off-key and follow it into an abyss. 

For, if there is ever a place where time stands still, even as figures move in continuum, merging with each other to create new shapes, which in turn recreate old ones, leaving your mind muddled in between, and your eyes hurriedly retracing your path to the beginning, it’s here. For, it’s here that you’ll find yourself lost within Escher’s pencil sketches and prints, mirror reflections and wooden engravings. All glazed with the trick of light and its conman cousin — distance.

Time and space

But first, let us take a note of our setting. We’re here in an 18th-century building, which at first glance doesn’t resemble a ‘palace’ of any sort. But, step inside to get a whiff of royal ambience: this 200-year-old building was in use by Dutch royalty till 1990. Although majority of the space has been dedicated to Escher’s woodcuts and lithographs, there are gentle reminders inviting a browsing visitor to take a peek into a former Dutch royal life. In all the royal rooms we find information on how the palace was used during Queen Emma’s time. The palace display is even alternated with blown-up black-and-white photographs of Queen Emma giving us a glimpse of the life she led; in fact, this palace was her winter residence until 1934.

However, with every rickety staircase we climb, our focus shifts from the silk tapestry and crystal chandeliers to impossible pencil sketches: Two disembodied hands draw each other (Drawing Hands), birds become fish (Sky and Water), rivers flow upstream (Waterfall), and staircases connect on the same level (Ascending and Descending/Relativity). Before we know it, it almost feels like we’re in a less dramatic version of the film Inception. 

First impression

Maurits Cornelis Escher was at first a student of architecture, who later jumped ship to become one of the most well-known graphic artists in the world. Many of Escher’s mathematical masterpieces make the impossible seem  commonplace. His works boggle the eye — they appear innocent at first glance, but stare long enough, and you’ll surely do a double take!

Escher drew optical illusions and using his favoured geometric concept of tessellations, he would distort shapes and figures and ‘morph’ them to resemble something else altogether. For instance, he managed to transform Italian landscapes to appear as birds flying over a valley, even as night transformed into day, and vice versa (Day And Night).

“I cannot resist fooling around with established certainties...” Escher explained, “...it gives me great pleasure, for example, to deliberately mix up the second and third dimensions, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity.” And so, he would bring in an aspect of reality into his art, and then, extend its realms through means of his own artistic licence. Thus, many of his works, it would appear, strive to denote eternity and infinity.

The museum exhibit combines Escher’s works of art with biographical material: we find letters, self-portraits, photographs and rough/preliminary sketches as we browse through displays on each floor. His initial interest in tessellations seemed to have been a catalyst for many of his later works. This concept which refers to the “covering of a plane surface with the repeated use of a single shape, without gaps or overlapping,” along with other concepts such as crystallography and endless space, are echoed in many of his artistic expressions — especially in the Metamorphosis series.

Change in parts

The highlight of the exhibition is a seven-metre-long circular work of art titled Metamorphosis III. This unconventional display allows the viewer to appreciate Escher’s attempt at combining time and space as a single entity. Given that most of Escher’s works revolve around concepts of time, space, eternity and infinity, he used metamorphosis — “a constant change of shape” — to express his ideas.

In 1937, Escher came out with Metamorphosis I, which was followed two years later by a four-metre-long Metamorphosis II. In 1967, the Art Department of the Post Office in The Hague commissioned Escher to extend his work of art to seven metres. Metamorphosis III is supposed to reflect the spirit of Escher’s work — here, the beginning and end coincide, thus linking eternity to infinity. Time and space run parallel to each other in a never-ending circle, and the eye constantly encounters new elements. The narrative unfolds through form and free association. Salamanders become hexagonal patterns; insects crawl out of honeycombs and transform into fish along the way. 

And in all three versions of the Metamorphosis, Escher depicts Attrani, a small town on the Italian coast. Escher offers by way of explanation: “Out of the blocks there emerges a town on the edge of the sea. The tower standing in the water is also part of a chess game, where black and white squares of the board bring us back to the letters of the word ‘metamorphosis’, which is where the story began.”

An entire second floor of the museum, dedicated to viewing things from Escher’s standpoint, is more of an interactive display. Here, walls appear to move, floors break open into an abyss, and we mirror ourselves like Escher and catch a glimpse of ourselves and the distorted world behind us, much like Escher did in The Hand with a Reflecting Sphere.

And just as we begin to question these hallucinatory works of art, a sudden wave of realisation washes over us: we begin to see as Escher does. One thing is for sure. We can only leave here with a fresh dose of perspective. And, for an extra euro, perhaps a postcard.

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