Documentaries about visual artists tend to be so boringly conceived—you know: talk about the life, show a picture, talk about the life some more, show another picture—that you may not realize what you’ve been missing until you see one as excellent as “M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity.”
Written and directed by Robin Lutz, this is a rare feature that takes the trouble not just to understand its subject and communicate his significance, but find ways to actually show us, visually, how his style evolved, and the principles behind that evolution.
The tale begins with a deceptively ordinary opening: the standard-issue “This is a movie about a great artist, here are a few summary details abut his life and art,” with some landscape and architecture shots and images of Escher’s work. Then it gradually moves on to become increasingly daring and fanciful, yet always remaining in service to the M.C. Escher, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker whose art became internationally famous during the post-World War II era.
Having forged a style that became instantly recognizable and widely imitated, Escher was a rare artist who managed to combine his influences into something genuinely new. His work is a geometric/mathematical surrealist vision of the objectively perceivable world, but also of the subjective interior, evoking ancient Arabic-North African graphics; the Salvador Dali-Pablo Picasso-Georges Braque anti-realist sensibility of the ’20s and ’30s, and computer models that would not become popular until decades after Escher started his own visual experiments.
Lutz and his collaborators, including a team of graphic designers and animators, make Escher’s art come to life in surprising and amusing ways, from having one of his trademark salamanders appear in an otherwise “realistic” frame and then travel across increasingly “unreal” panoramas until we’re in an Escher print, to re-imagining intricately patterned Escher artworks so that we seem to glide along them, or into them/through them. This happens slowly enough so that we can appreciate how deftly the artist translated negative space into positive space, in ways that made the distinction seem arbitrary: for instance, the black spaces between joined silhouettes of lizards or amphibians might become black birds with white spaces between them, then go back again. Or people and animals might move along one stretch of diagonal stairs and then jump to another, seeming to go upside down or sideways, in defiance of gravity, emphasizing the brain-teasing techniques that Escher perfected.
Lutz and his team have found a cinematic equivalent to the movement of the human eye over a static piece of pictorial art in a book or hanging on a museum wall. It’s especially good at evoking that “wow” moment when you realize that a thing you were looking at has somehow, mysteriously turned into another thing. It’s explaining the magic trick without ruining the magic, a magic trick of a different sort. This approach is so dazzling that one wishes the filmmakers had pushed it a bit further, deploying it even more often, or in more and subtler variations—perhaps figuring out a way to have the film itself flip back on itself structurally at key points, or end precisely where it started, so that the project itself seemed to have no beginning or end. (There’s a hint of this, but not too much more.)
Musician Graham Nash, a devotee of Escher who contacted him late in his life, says Escher self-deprecatingly dismissed the idea that he was an artist. Throughout the movie, we hear Escher align himself with scientists and mathematicians, often trashing his own skills as a representational draftsman and speaking of his influences and colleagues with awe. This isn’t to say that Escher was down on himself at all times, or that that he entirely rejected the notion he was making art: Escher’s letters, performed in voice-over by actor Stephen Fry, make it clear that he challenged himself to improve his abilities and expand his vision, and grew restless and irritable when he felt as if he’d gotten stuck in the same groove for too long.
And yet there was always a sense—particularly once Escher hit his forties and realized that he was indeed a global phenomenon—that maybe a “real” artist wouldn’t be quite so entertaining. This is the world’s misconception, not Escher’s, but it’s still a shame he let himself be affected by it. There’s depth, power, and eerie profundity in Escher’s art, but the puzzle-box aspect is so much fun that it obscures it. The movie makes a case that we should talk about Escher the way we talk about Bach or Rembrandt (to name two of Escher’s inspirations). Escher earned the comparison, even if it never occurred to him. Why resist? Perhaps there’s still something in us, even this late into human development, which worries that if you’re having fun, it can’t be art. Escher himself struggled with that misconception, right up to the end.
Now playing in virtual theaters.