February 3, 2015

Too Much Color

        I know, I know: everyone’s a critic.  But I have to confess that having seen some of M.C. Escher’s pieces broken down into the proofs from their separate blocks, there were a few that I liked better in plain black and white without their color blocks at all.  Here are a couple of examples.  What do you think?
        First up, the Mobius strip with ants.  In the finished version, the ants are red and the lattice of the Mobius strip has a pale greenish-grey.  Beside it, I’ve put the proof of the black block only.  And what can I say?  I like the black-and-white better.  I would be curious to see this piece with the red ants but no grey.  Perhaps that would have the pop of the red but also the pop of the black and white.  I assume that Escher himself probably did try the various combinations, but I  have not seen such a version anywhere.
        I know that Escher experimented with different color variants in his prints, because there are several different versions of this cool planetoid.  This one with strong terra cotta I found posted on-line, and the colored version on display at the exhibit I saw in December was paler colors, I think a yellow and the greenish color.  In one of my books there’s a version with only one color, a yellowish beige, and then there’s also the black and white version, which Escher published not just as a proof of the black block but as a final version in its own right.  It’s true that the two colors emphasize the interlocking pyramids that form this planetoid, especially when the colors are highly contrasting, as in this version.  But the trade-off is that in emphasizing the geometry, the colors de-emphasize and dull all the other details.  And the details here are really wonderful and, in my opinion, deserve to be the full and complete focus of the piece.  Look closely and find the dimetrodon, all the dinosaurs, people dining on the terraces, and the mountain goat!
        Finally, here’s another piece with black plus two colors.  Escher was obviously aiming for a depiction of depth, and infinity fading into the distance.  Hence the faint beige-ish color covering over the farthest fish to help them appear to fade away.  Nevertheless, when I saw the proof of the black block alone at the exhibit, I thought Escher’s masterful carving did the job just fine without muddying things up with color.  The black only version had all the infinite distant fish, but sharper, crisper, and cleaner.  These funny fish-critters are excellent enough to stand (or fly) on their own without any extra color or shading.  Unfortunately I can’t find a picture of the black only to post here, so you don’t know what you’re missing!
        I guess the moral of the story, if there has to be one, is that if Escher had one fault, it was the tendency to make his prints more complicated, more intricate and multi-stepped, than they needed to be.  Often black and white is not merely enough, but is just perfect on its own.

[Pictures: Möbius Strip II (Red Ants), woodcut with three blocks, and proof of black block, by M.C. Escher, 1963 (Image from The Magic of M.C. Escher, Thames & Hudson);
Double Planetoid, woodcut, version with 3 blocks and version with one block, by Escher, 1949;
Depth, wood engraving and woodcut with three blocks by Escher, 1955 (Images from wikiart.org).]

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