(Note: Last week, several students did an impressive presentation on the art of M.C. Escher, and I was reminded of a paper I wrote in college, some oh-twenty-one years ago. So I pulled the paper– which was on the works of Escher, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges– out the drawer and re-read it. Still holds up. Here are some thoroughly revised excerpts…)
“Our three-dimensional space is the only reality we know. The two-dimensional is every bit as fictitious as the four-dimensional, for nothing is flat, not even the most finely polished mirror. And yet, we stick to the convention that a wall or a piece of paper is flat, and curiously enough, we still go on, as we have since time immemorial, providing illusions of space on such plane surfaces as these. Surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim: ‘This is a house.'”– M. C. Escher
We have been brainwashed. Since art began, that charlatan Verisimilitude has tricked us into believing that what is depicted within the confines of an artist’s print or within the covers of a book can actually happen in “reality” (and I’m using that term VERY loosely). In short, we have a bizarre faith in the three-dimensionality of art. Our depth perception is too acute, in that we perceive depth when none is truly there.
That’s where M. C. Escher comes in. Famed Dutch lithographer and renowned architect of impossible worlds, Escher (1898-1972) constantly highlights the artifice of art. Escher never wants us to believe that what we are seeing in his prints– or any work of art, for that matter–is “real.” Instead, he flaunts the “flatness” of his works, to remind us that what we are seeing is a fictive world that cannot exist in our 3-D reality.
But it’s gonna hurt. To help correct our faulty “depth perception,” Escher has to trick us first. As Escher maintained, “Drawing is deception; it suggests three dimensions when there are but two! And no matter how hard I try to convince you about this deception, you persist in seeing three-dimensional objects” (Ernst 5).
Escher’s Three Sphere’s I illustrates his point: the wood engraving seems to be three stacked spheres: one that resembles a round beach ball, atop a sphere that seems to be cut in half, atop a squashed, elliptical-ish sphere.
At least, we want to think we are looking at spheres. Actually, despite what the title of the print suggests, there are no spheres at all, just three flat circles. Don’t believe me? Then consider this possible “side view” of the same print created by Bruno Ernst in his 1979 book The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher:
Get it? Those are not spheres; they’re all flat circles, all iterations of that circle on the bottom. One on the ground, one folded in half, one standing straight up– all two-dimensional circles. Our minds want to believe they’re three-dimensional shapes, but they’re aren’t. Despite all appearances, the objects are strictly flat; any depth they may seem to have is our doing.
And we have to do it. Yes, it’s wrong to see “three dimensions when there are but two” (as Escher says). Yes, art is a 2-D illusion, and on some level, we know it and don’t accept it. AND YET By stubbornly refusing to accept the two-dimensionality of art, we make the works “work.” when we behold a piece of art– any work of art– we become art’s “third” dimension.
Pretty “deep,” huh?
Ernst, Bruno. The Magic Mirror of M. C. Escher. New York: Random House, Inc, 1979.