M.C. Escher — Metamorphose

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.