Made in 1999 by Dutch director Jan Bosdriesz, the documentary Metamorphose: M.C. Escher, 1898-1972 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. 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. Escher began as a student of architecture, enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative arts in Haarlem by his parents, who struggled to help him find his way after he failed his high school exams.
Once in Haarlem, the lonely and somewhat morose Escher finds himself drawn to graphic art instead. One of his teachers, accomplished Dutch artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, whose influence is evident in Escher’s work and life, sees some of Escher’s linocuts and likes them. In archival footage of an interview with Escher, the artist says that Jessurun de Mesquita asked him, “Wouldn’t you rather be a graphic artist instead of an architect?” Escher admits, “I wasn’t all that interested in architecture.” It’s a little bit of a surprising admission given Escher’s wild architectural imagination, but perhaps what he meant was that he wasn’t interested in the conventional, but rather in the architecture of the fantastic, the impossible spaces he imagined in much of his 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.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.