The work of Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher needs no introduction. His often mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints are enjoyed by millions of people all over the world. These feature impossible constructions, explorations of infinity, architecture, and tessellations.
Born in Leeuwarden, Holland, the son of a civil engineer, Escher spent most of his childhood in Arnhem. Aspiring to be an architect, Escher enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. While studying there from 1919 to 1922, his emphasis shifted from architecture to drawing and printmaking upon the encouragement of his teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita.
In 1924 Escher married Jetta Umiker, and the couple settled in Rome to raise a family. They resided in Italy until 1935, when growing political turmoil forced them to move first to Switzerland, then to Belgium. In 1941, with World War II under way and German troops occupying Brussels, Escher returned to Holland and settled in Baarn, where he lived and worked until shortly before his death.
Apart from being a graphic artist, M.C. Escher illustrated books, designed tapestries, postage stamps and murals. During his lifetime, he made 448 lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings and over 2000 drawings and sketches.
The documentary at the bottom “Metamorphose: M.C. Escher”, made in 1999 by Dutch director Jan Bosdriesz, takes its title from one of Escher’s more well-known prints in which the word “metamorphose” transforms itself into patterns of abstract shapes and animals (featured in this article in 7 parts). It’s one of those college-dorm prints one thinks of when one thinks of M.C. Escher, and it’s wonderful in its own way. But the documentary reveals other sides of the artist—his art-school days, his sojourn in Italy—that produced a very different kind of work.
We learn other things about Escher: One of his woodcuts from this period is titled “Never Think before You Begin,” showing a lonely figure on a dark and treacherous path with only a tiny light to guide him, a representation of Escher’s decision to pursue graphic art. The narrator informs us that “it took more than thirty years for him to earn enough from his work to live on.”
Luckily, as with many artists who struggle for years, Escher had rich parents. We can thank them for their patronage. To give you some idea of Escher’s morbid character, we learn that he chose the topic “Dance of Death” for a three-hour lecture to his fellow art students in Haarlem. Escher told them, “The dance of death and life are two expressions with the same meaning. What else do we do other than dance death into our souls?”
Metamorphose is an impressive documentary, beautifully shot and edited, with a balance of stock footage of the period, interviews with the artist himself, and long, lingering shots of his work. The film covers Escher’s entire artistic life, ending with footage of the artist at work.
These “last images” of Escher, the narrator says, “are not gloomy. We see an artist in his studio, doing the things he enjoys,” a man “proud of his success.” At the end of his life, he still honored his teacher, de Mesquita, and the South Italian coast that sheltered him during his formative years.