I first encountered the world of Maurits Cornelis Escher where many others do: in school. A poster of his 22-foot-long Metamorphosis III hung along the walls of my fourth-grade classroom, where I spent many an idle minute or ten staring at its intricate geometry through which squares became birds, birds became lizards, lizards became fish, and it all somehow arrived at the cliff-like edge of a three-dimensional chessboard. It came as the last of a trilogy of woodcuts Escher made between 1937 and 1968, and a journey through its 1940 predecessor Metamorphosis II ends the 1971 documentary above, M.C. Escher: Adventures in Perception.
Escher himself seemingly had no happy classroom memories. “I hated school,” the narrator quotes him as saying. “The only class I liked at all was art. That doesn’t mean I was any good at it.” Though his work has no doubt inspired many youngsters to take up drawing, woodcutting, and printmaking themselves, it’s surely driven even more of them into mathematics.
Obsessed with perspective, geometry, and pattern (Escher described tessellation as “a real mania to which I have become addicted”), his images have, by the count of mathematician and Escher scholar Doris Schattschneider, led so far to eleven separate strands of mathematical and scientific research.
The twenty-minute Adventures in Perception, originally commissioned by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offers in its first half a meditation on the mesmerizing, often impossible world Escher had created with his art to date. Its second half captures Escher in the last years of his life, still at work in his Laren, North Holland studio. It even shows him printing one of the three titular serpents, threaded through a set of elaborately interlocking circles, of his very last print Snakes. He never actually finished Snakes, whose patterns would have continued on to the effect of infinity, and even says here of his officially complete works that none succeed, “because it’s the dream I tried for that can’t be realized.” But those unrealized dreams have kept the rest of us dreaming, and thinking, ever since.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.