Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Art is Always Illusion

The National Gallery of Canada is hosting this year an exhibition of prints by the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). 

It turns out that Escher's son emigrated to the Ottawa area years ago, and the prints are from the younger Escher's own collection. I've been fascinated with Escher's works for years. 

Famously, most of them portray "Impossible Realities", such as Ascending and Descending, which I had as a poster on my wall when I still lived at home with my parents. 

Dating from 1960, it is a lithograph depicting a building about thirty or forty feet high, with an unseen courtyard bordered by a staircase. Figures aligned in two rows move in opposite directions on the stairs, which are shown to simultaneously ascend and descend: 

These and other Escher works are optical illusions: but they bring forward the reality that the perspective techniques which made for "realism" in post-Renaissance painting, are themselves based on optical illusion. 

In Ascending and Descending and other works, Escher employed the geometrical principles which made for the illusion of ascending stairs, upon the same visual plane as those principles which provide for the illusion of descending steps. 

Though Escher wasn't the first to parody the optical illusions inherent to perspective painting, his oeuvre uniquely in the twentieth century made the vanishing-point form part of the content of the work. 

Through the maintenance of realism in terms of architectural detail, Escher nevertheless made it impossible to accept the conceit that his images were simply looking through a window. 

In a book called The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher, by Bruno Ernst, published originally in 1978, the author writes of a trompe l'oeil that he encountered years earlier: "These mural paintings, carried out in many combinations of varying shades of gray, achieved so plastic an impression that one could not escape the conviction that they were marble reliefs a deception, an illusion that never ceased to astonish." (p. 5) 

Ernst goes on: "This playful exercise has its roots in the representational methods of the Renaissance. The three dimensional world had to be reproduced as faithfully as possible on the flat surface, and in such a way that image and reality might be indistinguishable to the eye. The idea was that the painting should conjure up warm, voluminous reality. In the case of the trompe l'oeil paintings, ceiling paintings, and those portraits which keep on staring at one from whichever point one looks at them, it is a question of playing the game for the game's sake. It is no longer a matter of representational verisimilitude in the things that are being portrayed, but of downright optical illusion, of superdeception in the service of deceit. The painter takes a delight in this deceit, and the viewer is determined to be deceived willy nilly, deriving therefrom the same sort of sensation as when he is being taken in by a magician. The spatial suggestion is so strong. so exaggerated, that nothing short of actual touch can reveal to us that we are dealing with pictures on a flat surface. A great deal of Escher's work is related to this supersuggestion of the spatial to which we have just referred. However, the suggestion itself is not what he is primarily aiming at. His prints are much rather the reflection of that peculiar tension inherent in any flat representation of a spatial situation. In many of his prints he causes the spatial to emerge from the flat surface. In others he makes a conscious attempt to nip in the bud any spatial suggestion that he may have brought about." (pp. 5-6) 

Escher was also evidently fascinated with the figure-ground relationship. This is seen in the "periodic space-filling" works, such as the pen-and-ink Angels and Devils, from 1941, where each angelic figure's outline is shared with the satanic one beside it.

More substantive works, such as Up and Down (from 1947), carry forward the figure-ground relation in terms of illusional representation. The lithograph features a young man sitting on steps leading up to what appears to be a tropical villa, looking up at a woman leaning on its balcony. 

This is shown from two perspectives simultaneously, from above the villa, and from below. In the latter scene, the structure's ceiling becomes the floor for the perspective from above: In point of fact, all art, or at least all art that claims to be representational, is an optical illusion. Curved and straight lines are placed down on paper (or painted on canvas or whatever), and if accomplished with enough finesse, establish a gestalt: a face, or a building, or the sky, or what you have you.

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