Enter an Online Interactive Documentary on M.C. Escher’s Art & Life, Narrated By Peter Greenaway

Despite their enor­mous pop­u­lar­i­ty, the enig­mat­ic works of Dutch artist M.C. Esch­er have not, per­haps, received their due in the high art world. But he is beloved by col­lege-dorm-room-dec­o­ra­tors, Haight-Ash­bury hip­pies, math­e­mati­cians, doc­tors, and den­tists, who put his art on their walls, says Micky Pil­lar, for­mer cura­tor of the Esch­er Muse­um in The Hague, because “they think it’s a great way of get­ting peo­ple engaged and for­get­ting about real­i­ty.” Math­e­mat­i­cal giants Roger Pen­rose and HSM Cox­eter “were daz­zled by Escher’s work as stu­dents in 1954,” notes The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy. Mick Jag­ger was a huge fan, though Esch­er turned him down when asked to draw an album cov­er, annoyed at being addressed by his first name (Mau­rits).

Esch­er, says Ian Dejardin—director of the Dul­wich Pic­ture Gallery in London—“may have been the only per­son in the world who had nev­er heard of the Rolling Stones.” It wasn’t that he ignored the world around him, but that he focused his career on invent­ing anoth­er one, tak­ing inspi­ra­tion first from the Ital­ian coun­try­side and cityscapes, after set­tling in Rome, and lat­er turn­ing to what he called “men­tal imagery”: the para­dox­i­cal por­traits, fan­tas­ti­cal shift­ing shapes, and mind-bend­ing pat­terns, so absorb­ing that peo­ple in wait­ing rooms for­get their dis­com­fort and anx­i­ety when look­ing at them.

One of the most famous of such works, 1939’s Meta­mor­pho­sis II, owes its cre­ation to the his­tor­i­cal pres­sures of Ital­ian fas­cism and the geo­met­ric fas­ci­na­tions of Islam­ic art. After leav­ing Rome in 1935 as polit­i­cal ten­sions rose, Esch­er found him­self inspired by his sec­ond vis­it to The Alham­bra in Spain. Its “lav­ish tile work,” as the Nation­al Gallery of Art writes, “sug­gest­ed new direc­tions in the use of col­or and the flat­tened pat­tern­ing of inter­lock­ing forms.” So intri­cate and tech­ni­cal­ly daz­zling is the four-meter-long print that it mer­its an in-depth look at its con­text and com­po­si­tion.

That’s exact­ly what you’ll find at a new “inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary” on Meta­mor­pho­sis II, by the mak­ers of a sim­i­lar fea­ture on Hierony­mus Bosch’s Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights. The online resource lets users scroll across the print, zoom­ing in to an extra­or­di­nary lev­el of detail, or zoom­ing out to see how it tran­si­tions sec­tion by sec­tion, from the word “meta­mor­phose,” to a checker­board pat­tern, to lizards, hon­ey­combs, bees, hum­ming­birds, fish, etc.. Along the way, you can click on lit­tle col­ored hexa­gons (that trans­form into cubes) and bring up short arti­cles on Escher’s life and aspects of the work at hand. Each of these fea­turettes is nar­rat­ed (in the Eng­lish ver­sion) by British film­mak­er and artist Peter Green­away. Once you open one of these explana­to­ry win­dows, a nav­i­ga­tion tool (above) appears at the bot­tom of the screen.

We see how the var­i­ous ani­mals in Escher’s “sys­tem­at­ic tes­sel­la­tions,” as he called them, were cho­sen by virtue of their shape as well as Escher’s inter­est in their life cycles and meth­ods of orga­ni­za­tion. “Nature was a source of won­drous beau­ty for Esch­er,” the doc­u­men­tary explains. “In his jour­nals and let­ters, he often wrote about what sur­prised, amazed or moved him” in the nat­ur­al world. Some of the Meta­mor­pho­sis II sec­tions appeared in lat­er works like 1943’s Rep­tiles. Esch­er drew atten­tion both to the nat­ur­al world’s vari­ety and its genius for repeat­ed pat­terns. But the move­ment from one ani­mal to the next has noth­ing to do with zool­o­gy.

Esch­er delight­ed in play­ing “mind asso­ci­a­tion games.” We learn that as a child, “he would lie in bed and think of two sub­jects for which he had to cre­ate a log­i­cal con­nec­tion.” In one exam­ple he gave, he would attempt to find his way from “a tram con­duc­tor to a kitchen chair.” Meta­mor­pho­sis II gives us a visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of such games, men­tal leaps that chal­lenge our sense of the order of things. The doc­u­men­tary sit­u­ates this fas­ci­nat­ing work in a his­tor­i­cal and aes­thet­ic con­text that allows us to make sense of it while adding to our appre­ci­a­tion for its strange­ness, offer­ing sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways of approach­ing the work, as well as an invi­ta­tion to make your own.

One fea­ture, the “Meta­mor­pho­sis Machine,” lets you choose from a selec­tion of start­ing and end­ing pat­terns. Then it fills in the trans­for­ma­tion in the mid­dle. The results are hard­ly Esch­er-qual­i­ty, but they are a fun and acces­si­ble way of under­stand­ing the work of an artist whose vision can seem for­bid­ding, with its impos­si­ble spaces and dis­ori­ent­ing trans­for­ma­tions. Enter the Meta­mor­pho­sis II inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

M.C. Esch­er Cov­er Art for Great Books by Ita­lo Calvi­no, George Orwell & Jorge Luis Borges

Watch M.C. Esch­er Make His Final Artis­tic Cre­ation in the 1971 Doc­u­men­tary Adven­tures in Per­cep­tion

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Bewil­der­ing Mas­ter­piece The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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