Metamorphose: 1999 Documentary Reveals the Life & Work of Artist M.C. Escher

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Math­e­mat­ics Made Vis­i­ble: The Extra­or­di­nary Art of M.C. Esch­er

Inspi­ra­tions: A Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

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.

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