It occurs to me that I have an occasionally-troubled relationship with time. The patience of the Dutch impresses me: the decades and generations, for instance, of carefully reclaiming land from the sea. The paintings of Johannes Vermeer and the woodcuts and lithographs by M.C. Escher, bespeak a lifetime of deeply-responsive and engaged living. Vermeer, we are told, shows us not what he saw, but what he wants us to see, while Escher displays a full range of perception, from the mystic to the gory. Meanwhile, in contemporary cultural Holland, one is to walk with averted eyes past each other’s open windows. Apparently there is nothing to hide, and equally nothing to display. Or (?) if there is, one must pointedly not look in order not to see.
I could hardly have chosen two more counterposed artists to see in one day. Vermeer is sensual, smooth, projecting pure tranquility. Escher seems stoned, depicting fantastical images worthy of hallucinogens (and the curators seem to agree). Yet each man is obviously the product of his times – offering up images that refract the psychosocial dynamics of their era according to their respective sensibilities. Vermeer (1632-1675) spends his entire life in Delft, leaving no traces except his paintings. Guesswork fills in details, the critic’s gaze and audience’s imagination craving the lush life his paintings portray.
Pondering the post-war psychological commentary about the “View of Delft,” painted six years after the explosion of 1654, I hopped on the tram to Scheveningen. Vermeer, argue the curators, presented the life he wished, obscuring all unpleasant details.
Musing on the forces that brought me to Holland (personal, biographic), I enjoyed seeing the sea. The interlude was necessary (it seems, in retrospect) to enable some distance from the calm vision of Vermeer to the disruptive designs of Escher. The light streaming in the window onto the photography of Thijs Tuurenhout in the upper gallery of the Vermeer Centrum also turned out to be a kind of prelude.
Maurits Cornelis Escher’s choices (1898-1972) are distinctly different than Vermeer’s. Escher draws on Moorish imagery, Christian mythology, biology, and warfare. Good and evil, light and dark are pitted in constant competition. The primal contest of living with its everpresent companion death is represented starkly, without reserve, and disturbingly balanced: who knows which side will prevail?
I was startled by his range: mathematical precision in rigorous interaction with inspirational and indigenous knowledges. Some work reminds me of the art of American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, others of the hints and whispers of Goddess-worshipping pagans. The psychological entwines with the institutional . . . did he know how much the Swans (1956) begin to resemble the double helix? Could he have imagined that Magic Mirror (1946) evokes the quantum mechanics discovery of wave-particle duality? I imagine the powerful representations of war and violence in Escher’s work have been well mined, but what about his prescience about the environment, as seen in Puddle (1952)?
I did not take many pictures of (what I react to as) the creepy stuff. It occurred to me that maybe this is a difference between liberals and conservatives in the U.S.? Liberals want everything to be happy, and conservatives know it just ain’t so. Too simplistic, of course, but it was a new lens (for me) on that divide. Can you see the skull in the center of this eye?
Where does the end begin?”
Hurled at the audience in mockery of our mortality, these questions form part of the text of the three-dimensional “Virtual Reality” video of Escher’s work (by Wennekes Multimedia 2007, too bad I can’t find it online). Escher played knowledge against perception, daring us not to fear the miscegenation. Somehow, he managed to merge these modes into coherent art. Each single piece captures an aspect of universal complexity, while the oeuvre illustrates a purposeful trajectory.
Me? I get caught between trying to catch the essential qualities of lived moments and the progression toward a larger, cumulative contribution. The insight with which I opened this blogpost involved the spirit of my parents’ lives as I was growing up: their ambition to be part of the class-conscious carnival with its exaggerated pleasures and lapses of ennui between episodes of spectacle. This may explain a deep kind of patterned cycle that I find occasionally interrupting otherwise steady progress towards my own longterm goals.