If you’re of a certain age, the mere mention of the name M.C. Escher can nudge you into a heady swirl of nostalgia. Robin Lutz’s joyful and kaleidoscopic documentary “M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity” took me back to the days when I was in junior high in the early ’70s, and I would go downtown to visit the head shops and stores selling beads and waterbeds, and there, amid the R. Crumb comix and hash pipes and alternative newspapers and tie-dye T-shirts, you would see those jaw-dropping eye-popping posters, most of them in black-and-white (a few, hung in the black-light room, in psychedelic color), and you would stare at them until they seemed to be staring right back. They looked like melting geometric acid trips from an alternative earth.
A large staircase that folds around into a square, yet somehow keeps ascending. A puddle in the woods, reflecting the trees and sky with such clarity that the image seems not so much to mirror the world above it as to open up to another world below. Two hands popping out of the page and drawing each other. The faces of two lovers as a single piece of floating ribbon tying them together. Lizards, ants, and snakes slithering around (and off) the page. A diamond collage of birds, the spaces between them morphing into fish, the birds morphing into the spaces between them. And, of course, the rare image in which you could actually see the man who had dreamed this all this up: At the center of a silver sphere reflecting the room around it, a bearded figure holds the sphere in his palm — a serious gentleman, sternly conventional except for the enigmatic knowingness in his eye. That was M.C. Escher.
But who was he? Was he from another world?
As “M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity” reveals, the answer is yes. Escher’s work meshed, to an uncanny degree, with the trippy aesthetics of the counterculture, as much as “The Lord of the Rings” (published in the mid-’50s) did. That’s because Escher, years ahead of his time, was an artist who played tricks on your eye to knock open the doors of perception. Yet Escher himself wouldn’t have put it that way. Born in 1898, he was a Dutch crafter of woodcut lithographs who’d done his most memorable work in the 1940s, and he lived a sedate and bourgeois existence that couldn’t have been further removed from the surreal carnival spirit of the late ’60s.
“Journey to Infinity” opens with a funny explanation of how his classically etched dream images first landed in the Haight-Ashbury revolution. It seems that some budding youth-culture entrepreneur got the idea of taking Escher’s prints and colorizing them for sale, without thinking to ask permission. Licensing, royalties: He just ignored all that. This provoked some major ire on the part of Escher himself, but mostly it provoked bewilderment. In a voice-over narration, we hear Escher, in one of his letters, say the following: “The hippies in San Francisco continue to print my work clandestinely. I managed to get hold of a couple of horrendous results through the meditation of a friendly customer who lives in that area. I cannot understand why the out-of-control youths of today appreciate my work so much.”
Maybe it’s because Escher’s work turned reality upside down. Maybe it’s because there was a Zen coolness to it. But it may also relate to something that the self-deprecating Escher, who considered himself less an artist than a mathematician, said about his work. He called it “a mish-mash that lacks all profoundness. It is and remains the game of a child. And sensible people are welcome to consider it trivial.”
That, in a way, was its splendor, and it’s what made Escher connect to the spirit of the counterculture. The ’60s were childlike too; they were about giving in to your inner child. Escher’s drawings have the exuberantly meticulous, let’s-try-it-on spirit of animation — and, in fact, Escher made that observation about them, and predicted the rise of animation as an art form. (He admired Disney, but thought the form has possibilities far beyond that.) He dreamed of making films, and one can only dream of the films that Escher would have made.
“Journey to Infinity” lets Escher tell his story in his own words, drawing from letters, diaries, and lectures, but the film does all this with a major eccentric flourish: The words are read by the British actor Stephen Fry, who delivers them with a purposefully italicized, overexcited lilt that sounds like something out of Monty Python. Yet there’s a method to this wee bit of madness. Escher, born into wealth (the house he grew up in is like a small palace), was a deeply civilized fellow, but with the quiet inner rumblings of an impish aesthete-anarchist. Fry’s over-the-top reading coaxes that side of Escher out.
And his story is fascinating. In 80 minutes, “Journey to Infinity” sketches in his life — his early training in the Netherlands at the Harlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts; the time he spent in Tuscany, where his work came alive under the inspiration of the region’s sensual splendors; his marriage to Yetta, a young Russian he fell in love with on one of those trips and remained devoted to, even as she fell into bouts of mental illness. Mostly, though, the film tells Escher’s story by tracing the fascinating development of his art.
He started out as a woodcut landscape artist, and the movie goes back to many of the images he drew, matching them with the real locations (which remain eerily unchanged). His skills were extraordinary. For a while, he and Yetta moved to Rome, where his etchings of the city at night have a tactile ghostliness; the buildings seem alive. There’s one print of a Tuscan village, nestled in rocks he renders with stylized vertical energy, that’s like something out of a dream. (I looked at it and thought: If Escher had illustrated “The Lord of the Rings,” his images would have been what we now view the book through.) He hated snow, but did one of the most magical evocations of it you’ve ever seen.
But it wasn’t until Escher visited the Alhambra Palace in Spain, and saw the fantastic tiled collages there, that his work began to acquire its exquisite geometric insanity. He said, “What fascinates me, in the tiles of the Alhambra, is the discovery of a motif that repeats itself according to a certain system.” He became fixated on these patterns, a technique known as tessellation, though he thought it was a “pity” that the Moors, in creating these spellbinding designs, didn’t use birds, fish, reptiles, humans, or other things from nature. “Recognizability is so important to me,” he said, “that I’ve never been able to do without it.” His tessellated birds were, in a way, the true birth of the Escher aesthetic. They’re mesmerizingly patterned, and that seems to be the art of it, but the fact that they are birds is what gives the images their organic wildness. By the time he gets to tessellated butterflies (in splendid color), you feel like you’re on a mood enhancer.
The whole process opened up something in Escher, as he began to give in to his inner surrealist. The Curl-up was a creature he created, like a snail with protruding black eyes and the ability to curl itself up into a wheel — because God, Escher noted during one of his bike rides, had forgotten to invent the wheel, or any creature who could mimic its fantastic abilities. His famous Curl-up drawing is squirmy and creepy, like a pristine horror movie (“Invasion of the Wheel-Bugs!”), which weirdly seems to be taking place in some multi-tiered bathhouse. And then there’s the timeless Escher image of people walking up and down stairs right past each other, at different angles, so they appear to be in different dimensions.
“M.C Escher: Journey to Infinity” tells us just enough of what we want to know about M.C. Escher’s life, but it’s essentially a presentation of his art; it’s like an art book that comes gorgeously to life. We see the influence he had on cinema, graphic art, and tattoos (there are a great many of Escher tattoos), and one observer predicts that Escher’s prestige is destined to grow in the future. Maybe so. As obsessively as he worked, he saw himself as a craftsman; the ‘60s upped his profile by turning him into a pop figure. But the more time moves on, the more Escher seems to touch something timeless. His work really did ask that quintessential counterculture question, “What is reality?” His answer was simple in its profundity: Reality is mesmerizing, and never what you think.