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Artist M.C. Escher spent a lifetime distorting perspective

The late Dutch artist M.C. Escher is perhaps best known for his tessellations that fool the eye, like “Sky and Water I,” where birds in the air trade off negative space with fish underwater. But there are 200 lithographs, woodcuts and drawings on display in the biggest-ever U.S. exhibit of Escher’s work at Brooklyn’s Industry City. Hari Sreenivasan went on a tour with the exhibit's manager, Johanna Guttmann.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You may not know his name, but you likely have seen his iconic art.

    M.C. Escher, the late Dutch master of lithographs and woodcuts, filled his work with mind-bending illusions and impossible geometric patterns. Remarkably, he did it all by hand. Now, his career and legacy is on display in the largest-ever exhibition of Escher works in the U.S.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And the viewer at home thinks I'm really a tiny person.

    This is the "Relativity Room," which plays a visual trick on those looking from the outside. The tilted floor and tiles make the person standing on the left look much smaller than the person on the right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So this is all just to try to drive home to people that our eyes can deceive us. It's really about your perspective.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    It's how our brain organizes the information that it sees and tha,t how we can play tricks on our brain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And this is what Escher knew, inherently, that we could fool ourselves into thinking.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    Right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The "Relativity Room" is an interactive part of a major exhibition of the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

    Escher is perhaps most famous for his optical illusions that show seemingly logical scenes that are actually impossible, but he is also known for his intricate pattern work of animals and objects.

    Over six decades, until his death in 1972, Escher created 448 lithographs, woodcuts and engravings and more than 2,000 drawings and sketches.

    The Italian art exhibitor Arthemisia, in collaboration with the M.C. Escher Foundation, produced and organized this presentation of 200 of his works from international collections at Brooklyn's Industry City. It's the largest M.C. Escher exhibition ever shown in the United States.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I remember seeing a Pink Floyd album jacket with an M.C. Escher work in it. I had no idea that was him.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    Well, actually, more people are familiar with him than they think they are.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Johanna Guttmann is the exhibition's manager.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    They don't necessarily make the connections with artwork, artwork that's very iconic. It's when they come here that they see all those references throughout pop culture, whether it's the sleeves for the albums, or whether it's advertising, film, fashion. It's absolutely everywhere.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even though he had no formal training in mathematics, in 1954, the International Congress of Mathematicians held an Escher exhibition, which sparked correspondence between Escher and mathematicians who admired his work.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It doesn't seem that his intent was mathematical, but there was so much math involved in what he was creating.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    His intent was not necessarily mathematical, though he is exploring concepts such as infinity very much so throughout his career. However, it's only in the 1950s when he starts this dialogue with mathematicians, and they're reaching out to him and they are inviting him to those international conferences.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And he speaks their language.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    Absolutely. He can put on paper what they're speaking of in very abstract terms.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Escher's later work often has "impossible" architectural elements. In this lithograph called "Belvedere," look at the columns of this structure: they can't be architecturally sound. And in "Ascending, Descending" the figures are going up and down an "impossible staircase." That staircase makes an appearance in the 2010 sci-fi film "Inception."

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur: "Like the Penrose steps, the infinite staircase, see.."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even the bench that we are sitting on for this interview illustrates an "impossible" object.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    It's an Impossible Triangle. So it's a triangle that doesn't actually work. It doesn't close properly. But there is an illusion here that if you're on top of it from that angle where we have the camera up on top it appears as if you're sitting on top of a very tall triangle. If you want to sit back to back to me, it would be better because the camera's actually that way, you want to look at the camera.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Got it.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    That way they can see your face.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Oh wow. Now we look like we're on top of a giant tri- ( laughs)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In this piece, the water feeding the waterfall seems to defy gravity.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    There is the Penrose triangle, or the Impossible Triangle.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So he gives us these cues — the elevated path.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    Right .I think he's giving his cues but I think he wants us to play with it. He wants us to see, you know it's not what you think it is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Escher was also inspired by the geometric patterns of Moorish architecture on a trip to Spain in the 1930s, where he studied the intricate motifs at the Alhambra Palace. One of Escher's masterpieces is the 12-foot long "Metamorphosis II." It is made from 20 woodcut block prints.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    Here's some sort of reptiles.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Wow. And then all of a sudden we're back to squares again.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    You see you almost don't see the transformation.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    So he's tessellating, but tessellating with animate and inanimate objects.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's the tessellation mean?

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    The way we have the repetitive patterns. But here how they fit so perfectly into each other like puzzle pieces.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Also on display, Escher's lithograph "Hand with Reflecting Sphere" shows his playful use of mirrored surface. It's a piece that Guttmann uses to start a conversation with younger visitors.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    I like to call it the original selfie, the way he puts his hand out and he's using a reflective sphere the same way that we use our phones today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And for those visitors who want a "selfie" to look like Escher's, the exhibit has a moment for that, too.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You put yourself into his selfie–.

  • Johanna Guttmann:

    And that's really a sense of the entire exhibition, that you can immerse yourself in his world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    "Escher: The Exhibition & Experience" is on display until next month.

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