The Camera Is Escher’s Eye

“I think it’s in my basement…Let me go upstairs and check.”

― M.C. Escher

By Steve Segal

Maurits Cornelis Escher commonly known as M.C. Escher was an artist who has inspired millions with his unique vision. This is made abundantly clear in the film M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, a hugely entertaining and informative documentary.

Early in the film, pop musician and Escher fan, Graham Nash relates that Mr. Escher says “I’m not an artist, I’m a mathematician.”  But it’s easy to discern from his writings and drawings that he doesn’t give himself enough credit; he is truly both. 

“I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself,“ Escher wrote to a collector in 1969. Director Robin Lutz uses the artist’s diaries, letters, lectures and catalogues to create his personal life described in his own words.

                       Hand with Sphere 1935 lithograph

 

The film is quite fascinating and most of what you hear are Escher’s writings about his approach to his art and mathematics, his thought process and even what’s in his heart. These are read with great gusto by English actor and writer, Stephen Fry, channeling his best John Cleese impression. The rest of the story is fleshed out with first person accounts by Escher’s children. 

The artist’s struggling through 20th century Europe avoiding Nazi control is documented with photographs and first person accounts. Most moving is his meeting and being smitten by his wife Jetta, told with his own letters and images.

Portrait of Jetta, 1925 woodcut

Many of the actual locations used for his art have been found for comparison. Sometimes the art is brought to life through animation and since Escher’s best work exhibits a kind of repetitive but transformational imagery, it seems completely appropriate to use animation for these.  The moving images are actually quite complicated with rotations, pans and zooms using elaborate transition imagery that seems to go on to infinity.

When I was in my early 20 ‘s I was exposed to his “House of Stairs” in a Time/Life book about mathematics.  The illustration contained the curl-up character he called “wentelteefje” moving up and down stairs that defy normal perspectives as well as defying gravity. I studied it for hours and the imagery made its way into A Walk in the Black Forest and Pandora’s Box, two of my earliest animated films which made no attempt to emulate his exquisite etching style but did employ some of his impossible perspectives. The curl up character found its way into this new movie through use of computer graphic animation which is quite impressive.

One of my favorite sequences is seeing the artist late in his years making a print, even reusing the wood block to print and repeat (extremely precisely) a portion of the image. The film wraps with a succession of art forms influenced and inspired by Escher: Set design, posters, street art, face paint, tattoos, chessboard, interactive displays, even a working model of an impossible object.

Also used are some of the films inspired by his vision, like Labyrinth, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Matrix, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Inception, and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

 If you are a fan of Escher’s, this film is a must see;  if you’re not a fan, then you need to watch this film to have that fixed. 

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity is now playing in select cinemas and available on Virtual Cinema benefiting the theaters and filmmaker. How to see it here.

The Official M.C. Escher Collection website features dozens of images.

Listen to the Film School Radio interview with Director Robin Lutz & Producer Marijnke de Jong.

Steve Segal ran a studio in Richmond, Virginia in the 1970s making commercials and educational films. He also created several independent short films which have won awards at film festivals and been included in theatrical packages. Steve has been teaching animation for over 40 years. In 1986 he used an early computer program to plan scenes for the animated featureThe Brave Little Toaster. He worked as an animator on PeeWee’s Playhouse and made an animated musical film forSesame Street. At Pixar he animated on the feature films Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, the theme park attraction It’s Tough to be a Bug, and the Oscar winning short film Geri’s Game.

Read an interview with Steve from Toy Story: How Pixar Reinvented the Animated Feature.

 Visit Steve’s Website at Segaltoons.com

Follow him on Facebook.

In 2014 he was awarded “Best in Show” for his performance piece Outside the Box at the ASIFA SF animation festival.

His most recent film Misfit (shot in 3D) has been included in several film festivals.

 

 

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