January 13, 2015

Escher's Fantasy Places

        As promised, I have more M.C. Escher for you today, and this time I’ve chosen some fantasy pieces.  Of course in some ways fantasy themes (broadly defined) appear in a high percentage of Escher’s work: all the pieces with strange creatures, all the pieces with impossible topography, all the pieces with transformations, odd juxtapositions, and counterfactual elements.  But I’ve selected a few pieces that show scenes of pure fantasy.
        Still Life and Street is a classic fantasy world: books becoming buildings, or some some juxtaposition of scale.  It makes me think of E. Nesbit’s story “The Town in the Library in the Town in the Library,” although Escher’s picture clearly shows the library town of a grown man rather than one built by naughty little children.  As always, Escher’s wonderful details add to the magic, from the patterns on the books to the flowers in the windows, and the laundry lines all the way down the street.  Notice the perfect shadows that the plants on the roof cast onto the wall opposite!  I’d love to do this theme myself some day, although I’d have to come up with some twist to bring something new to the concept.
        The Drowned Cathedral is an illustration of the Breton legend of Ys.  Escher was inspired by hearing a performance of Claude Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie (1910) based on the legend.  The story itself is rather lurid involving murderous orgies, the Devil, a drunken wanton princess betraying her father, the king who in turn pushes his sinful daughter off the back of his magic horse and into the flood…  Sex, violence, and a moral - all the ingredients of a popular blockbuster.  However, the part of the story illustrated by Escher (and Debussy) is the last melancholy and mysterious trace of the destroyed city of Ys, whose drowned cathedral bells can still be heard sometimes when the sea is calm.  (Compare with the legend of Kitezh.)
        Castle in the Air seems rather like a companion piece to The Drowned Cathedral, with similar black sky and water, complex ancient architecture reflected in the water, and the fantastical scene observed by someone on the water.  In this case the buildings are even more impossibly situated, and the observer watches, mysteriously, from the back of a large turtle.  If this is an illustration of a particular story, I don’t know it.  (Note the detail of the reflection of the turtle’s back and rider 
superimposed on the shadow of the turtle’s bottom and flippers visible beneath the surface.  This was an idea Escher would come back to in 1955’s Three Worlds.)  This is one of Escher’s earliest pieces in which he was exploring the landscapes of his imagination rather than the real world.

[Pictures: Still Life and Street, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1937 (Image from wikiart);
The Drowned Cathedral, woodcut by Escher, 1929 (Image from cbcradio);
Castle in the Air, woodcut by Escher, 1928 (Image from wikiart).]

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