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Escher: the Self and inner mental structures

Francesco Carelli - University of Milan, Rome  

Esceri.jpgEscher is the 'Pop' Dutch genius whose visions have captured the imagination of designers and the minds of  scientists, exerting a lasting influencing on many other artists. He was  engraver, intellectual  and mathematician whose visionary works have shaped the collective imagination.

Two Hundered works by the artist are  on display in the halls of the  Palazzo Reale, in Milan, Escher's masterpieces, paintings  in addition to scientific experiments, games and educational resources  that help visitors of all ages to understand baffling creations, impossible perspectives and apparently irreconcilable universes that come together to form a unique artistic dimension.

Photograhing and being fotographed and multiplied.....Escher's effectsAs an artist who used to say that “Wonder is the salt of the earth”, Escher may be credited with broadening the imagination of those who gaze at or have gazed at his works, where everything is connected:  science, nature, analytical rigor and a contemplative quality.

Inspired and influenced by the art of the past as well as that of his own day, Escher turns geometric research and rigor into the purest visionary aesthetics. As a versatile and contemporary artist well ahead of his times, Escher does not find a key to his creative universe in the world of numbers, geometry and mathematics alone. 

A sophisticated genius, he combines a range of different languages into a new and intriguing itinerary that represents an unique one in the history of art across all ages and continues to thrill the wider public.

Although forty-four years have gone by since Escher's death, not only does his art show no sign of dating, but the   new digital technologies seem to be pursuing the results it achieved. 

The first section highlights Escher's rapport with Art Nouveau. The influence from Art Nouveau is one of the distinguishing features of Escher's early style and it also sparked his future interest   in tessellation or the regular division of the plane.

Then his close relationship with Italy is dealt with in depth, a country where Escher spent several periods of his life between 1921 and 1935: this section compares Escher's work with that of some of his contemporaries in Rome:  exponents of the Futurist avant-garde, Symbolism and Divisionism.

Escher had always been fascinated by reflective surfaces. The sphere reflecting rays from all directions shows the whole surrounding area. Hence the eyes of the viewer are always at the centre: in interfacing with the reflected space and light, the viewer comes to perceive the self at the centre of the universe.

Thus the Self – as Escher himself writes – is the undisputed protagonist at the centre of the world, which revolves around it.

Yet we find more than just spheres here: two - dimensional shapes are juxtaposed with solids through the tessellating of space according to an endless range of possible compositions which leave no empty areas, as in the 1955 work Depth, which seems to reproduce the disposition of atoms in iron (Fe). Escher was keenly interested in metals and crystals, and he studied all the laws governing their molecular arrangement in space.

 Metamorphosis is one of Escher's absolute masterpieces. The work depicts a whirl of transformations based on different forms of tessellation and logical and formal resemblances, culminating with a view of Atrani, the village on the Amalfi coast the artist was very fond of and where he had spent his honeymoon.

Escher had depicted Atrani in 1931. By comparing the two engravings, we realize that the landscapes in Escher’s 'conceptual' works after 1936, the year he left Italy, are, with few exceptions, Italian. It is as though, deprived of the landscape that inspired him, Escher found inspiration in inner mental structures that were rooted in his memories of the time spent in Italy.

 Two scientific domains are of crucial importance to Escher's art: mathematics and geometry. Between Escher and the mathematicians of his day ran a thin yet crucial line; the attraction between them, however, was a mutual and fruitful one. The Dutch genius alone was capable of turning his fantasies into images and this captured scientists' attention, leading to an exchange with the world of science which continued even beyond the artist's death.

 Gallery of Prints (1956) is a refined version of the image within the image, also known as the Droste effect (a name that derives from the tin of the famous Dutch cocoa). This effect spawned a scientific debate which raged on for forty-seven years, as scientists grappled with a problem that seemed unsolvable on account of its enigmatic

Complexity, a mystery on which Escher himself attempted to shed light through his work.

The Droste Effect makes the work seemingly incomplete because of the difficulty of joining it at the centre. Escher placed his signature in the empty space that remained. The mystery of this 'hole' left by Escher and of whether it is possible to fill it was solved by Hendrik Lenstra, a mathematician from Leiden University, in 2003.

Like all great artists, in creating bookplates and visiting cards for various clients, Escher never betrayed his own art, but rather adopted an original and immediately recognizable approach. Indeed, these projects offered Escher valuable   opportunities to try out solutions that he would later use for his masterpieces.

Escher's art left the confines of the studio and was transformed into gift boxes, postage stamps and greeting cards; it entered the world of comics and ended up on the LP sleeves of famous bands like Pink Floyd; and his impossible structures are used to allude to paradoxical situations or to astonish people with unrealizable constructions.

Echoes of engravings such as Relativity (or House of Stairs) are to be found in the whirling stairs which lead Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons to get lost in an Escher - like world. Escherian settings have been used in commercials like the one for Audi in 2007, based on the famous print Waterfall

Other World and Belvedere were used by Illy Caffè for a 2006 advertising. A scene in the fantasy film Labyrinth (1986), starring David Bowie and produced by George Lucas, is built around House of Stairs. Even the famous staircases at Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter saga, are a dynamic transposition of this work, which also inspired one of the most striking scenes from Night at the Museum 3 and a Sky commercial.



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