Escher and the contradiction

Like my maths teacher, your maths teacher probably tried to spruce up the classroom with posters by M C Escher. They were the ones that depicted mind bending scenarios like people walking up some stairs while seemingly walking down those stairs, day turning into night, a chessboard morphing into a tessellated reptile or perhaps most famously, groups of geometric forms diminishing into infinity. It was staring at these crazy worlds that ironically kept me sane during double maths.

Great though my debt to Escher was, I never really considered his work ‘art’. It was clever and ingenious, but nothing more than a collection of optical tricks. After seeing the Escher retrospective at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, I realize how much more I missed out on in double maths than simply employability. But it seems I had not been alone in my ignorance. This is the first ever UK exhibition of Escher’s work. Shockingly, only one of his prints is currently under public ownership. This exhibition therefore once and for all not only how dismally slow the UK has been to ‘get it’, but also how deservedly Escher merits his place as an all time great of the 20th century.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in the Netherlands in 1898. His early years were witness to a fertile piece of history in which radicalisms conquered the art world. Yet in spite of the ferment of the time, Escher’s work was detached from surrealism, cubism and other such schools. Certainly there are clear affinities, but by no means could you label his work as an example of these movements. It is perhaps this independence that has left his legacy alien to the annals of art history. And yet as this exhibition demonstrates, Escher was doing something quite as radical as his contemporaries. 

When the likes of Picasso or Mondrian sought to reinvent painting, they identified the fundaments of painting and redeployed them to create new forms of representation. The results were ultimately very different to traditional ‘realistic’ approaches to painting. Escher, like his contemporaries, had a profound understanding of the techniques. But rather than using this mastery for the deconstruction and reconstruction of reality, (as say Picasso’s analytical cubism did) Escher sought to push the possibilities of conventional representation to their limits. Rather than breaking reality up and piecing it together in a brave new vision, Escher used the tricks of realism to produce impossible realities.  In doing this, he shows us just how far realistic representation can go; paradoxically by taking it beyond its mandate in reality.

Escher’s almost perverse use of representation kept me suggesting the same questions. First, what exactly do we find in the realistically rendered impossibilities that Escher creates? Second, what is the meaning of these impossibilities, why is he doing this? The ambiguity of these questions ultimately convinced me that Escher, rather than producing optical tricks, was doing something of significance.

Key to understanding his importance is to look at how he uses art to make the impossible appear possible. For example in his prints, the two-dimensional becomes the three-dimensional. Backgrounds and foregrounds are rendered on the same plane. Sequences of progression and change are presented as timeless. The inside and outside of three-dimensional structures become one. So sensational are these feats that even describing them feels like writing nonsense or indeed as if Escher is bluntly, taking the piss.

His conceit is his ability to show how the tricks of realistic representation can be used to make the unreal, real. This perversion of conventional representation also has the effect of showing up its pretense of veracity. As Escher himself said, “surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim ‘This is a house’…”. Escher is showing us the disjunction between reality and its representation, using representation to render realistically what reality could never allow. 

This in part explains the obsession with realizing the impossible, but it is only half of the story. It is intriguing that in Escher’s work the impossible is always accompanied by a meticulous sense of order. We see this order in how his visions feature interconnected elements arranged for the realization of a complete whole. Escher’s famous tessellations are the most prominent example .The depiction of the impossible is integral to the functioning of these ordered systems. Indeed, these systems often function solely because they are predicated on an impossible feat of representation. Take the famous Waterfall.

Here the water in a canal appears to flow up the structure and then cascade down to a water wheel. After the water wheel the water then begins its course up the canal, as if pushed up by the waterwheel. Escher therefore reverses the course of water under the influence of gravity, creating a closed, endless system in which the water goes up, then down, then up again.

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The impossibility of the structure is integral to the functioning of the system. The canal edifice is totally contradictory for we see it in two mutually exclusive views. In the first view it appears as if the water is going along a flat canal, rendering the passage of the water plausible. Under the second view it looks as if the canal is going upwards in a structure of three ascending levels that culminate in the cascade. Somehow, (and don’t ask me how) Escher conflates the two views such that the progress of the water up the canal, has the plausibility of the flat canal while going up the structure of the ascending canal. In order to realize the impossible vision of water flowing against gravity the picture synthesizes two incompatible views of the same subject. This is one of many examples of Escher’s obsession with creating a perfect, infinitely looping order. 

So Escher is not merely exposing the artifice of representation, rather he is using this artifice to achieve a very consistent goal: the realization of order. The equally consistent incurrence of impossibility means this is a very particular order. For example, he could have just drawn an ascending canal with a pump at the bottom, pushing the water up for it to fall and then go up again. Instead he finds it necessary to bend reality to the point of contradiction in order to sustain this order. 

The difficulty of explaining why Escher does this, is what for me makes Escher fascinating and important. The only explanation I can offer for is to see his project as dealing with issues relevant to its time and place .A parallel figure in the early twentieth century also ran up against the impossible. Like Escher, the early Wittgenstein was a system builder. His own system sought to rationalize language in the image of formal logic. This quest necessitated a confrontation with contradiction in logic and language. Wittgenstein’s approach was not to dismiss contradiction, but to integrate it (and tautology) as one of the bounds of sense in language. It is perhaps no coincidence that the completion of both sets of systems requires that contradiction be domesticated and integrated into their respective orders.

This parallel can be explained by another. Like Wittgenstein, Escher also dallied with the transcendent. For Wittgenstein the quest for a systematized language was ultimately in service of demarking the territory of the transcendent.  Appropriately, Wittgenstein never fully articulated the exact nature of what eludes language, but from his interest in religion and mysticism we can speculate it was something metaphysical. Escher likewise encounters the transcendent in his systems. In one picture we see a tessellating life cycle with four distinct stages at each corner of the composition. The center is left blank save for the enigmatic inscription- ‘verbum’. This reference to God as ‘the word’ is one of God’s more philosophical signifiers invoking the tradition that describes him/her in abstract metaphysics: god as the beginning and end, god as that which nothing greater can be conceived; God as the ineffable.

So how do we explain the fact that both Wittgenstein’s and Escher’s systems incur contradiction and the metaphysical. It is surely no coincidence that their work emerged in the modernist epoch. Among other things, it was the epoch confronting Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God is dead. It was also an age defined by technological rationalization; from mass production to mass destruction, civilization displayed the intricate order Escher delighted in. Yet it was an order no longer guided by an all-pervading logos. God was after all well and truly dead.

Escher and Wittgenstein did not abandon God, and yet the world continued to move without him. Had they been content with this continuation, Escher’s order would never extend to infinity or culminate in ‘verbum’. Wittgenstein’s system would never have needed to point out the limit at which the divine begins and the order ends. Both were trying to find a place for God in a world, which seemingly didn’t need him/her. Their persistence is perhaps explained by the fact that neither man was sufficiently enamored with the achievements of their age to accept them as sufficient in and of themselves. They were not facile ‘partisans of progress’ as Flaubert said of Monsieur Homais.

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Escher’s contradictions are a reaction to this sense that a system without God is a meaningless one. The realization of the impossible achieves an order and harmony, otherwise guaranteed by a divine intelligence. The implication is therefore that this order is impossible without God and for this reason this order can only stand on its own by realizing the impossible. In creating these, impossible yet perfectly self-contained worlds, he molds reality into an order with some meaning. They are, existential in character.  

Returning to Escher’s brutal detaching of representation from the represented, it would seem that the possibilities afforded by a freed representation allow a vision of reality that maintains an order that should be impossible. It is a sense of order possible only with God. Although completing this task is a labor of Sisyphean proportions, it is not a happy one. I don’t think Escher was able to ultimately luxuriate in his perfect fantasies as a refuge from the directionless intricacies of the material world. His impossible order, by its very neatness, its conceit towards perfection, always begs the question, does it really mean anything? It explains itself in in its own terms and yet it is still somehow lacking. I think Escher knew this, hence why he could ultimately not resist inserting ‘Verbum’. He could not ultimately realize a meaningful, divinely sustained, order without God. Yet in the representation of god as the unconditioned presupposition (in a Kantian sense) of meaningful order Escher also necessarily fails.

There is no God, there is no God to represent. Escher therefore detached reality from representation, so that he might connect reality and its representation at the one point at which reality truly does not mirror reality. Ultimately no matter how distantly Escher renders representation from reality, he cannot overcome in representation the absence of God in reality. Conversely there is no representation that can substitute God. Escher’s plight is thus: he attempts to leave reality in an attempt to leave the absence of god, yet simultaneously the attempt to represent god leaves reality absent. The necessary impossibility of his quest is therefore the fact that it is as impossible to make pictures change reality as it is for those pictures to resemble reality: it is as impossible to represent a god that is not there as it is for there to be a god to be represented. This is the one circle Escher couldn’t square; it is the impossibility all others were in service of.

This impossibility in representation and reality forms two sides of the same coin. Escher attempted to make these two sides one, in what can only be described as a pictorial equivalent of contrapuntal technique. Two ideas, necessarily separated, trying to find an ultimate unity: god in res and god in media res. The irony is that for fifty years Escher managed a contrapuntal synthesis worthy of Bach (which he so admired), but these grand unities were all a staging of the overcoming of the one impossibility intrinsic to the very nature of the form that allowed these impossibilities. This fundamental impossibility is the fact that pictures are a world apart from the real world. The overcoming of impossibilities within the pictorial world were thus staged as a representation of the overcoming of the impossibility intrinsic to making pictures. The fusion of the point at which point reality and representation contradict each other is god and it is of course here that Escher wants to perform his reconciliation. One is therefore attempted to reverse Sartre/Dostoevsky and say that in the case of Escher: precisely because there is a god, anything is permitted’. Anything of course, except God himself/herself.