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‘M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity’ Review: Style over substance

Artist or mathematician?

M.C. Escher’s work is ubiquitous. If you’ve ever shopped for a calendar, you’ve likely seen one with his work. If you had art class in elementary school, you likely had projects based on his tessellations. While Escher’s work has been popular since the 1960’s, his story is not as well known as that of many other popular artists, and M.C. Escher: Journey To Infinity sets out to change that in this documentary feature.

Narrated by Stephen Fry reading Escher’s words from his own journals, Journey to Infinity begins with an autobiographical retelling of Escher’s life. We see a lot of Escher’s early work, woodcuts and drawings that show a hint of the style he has yet to develop and that he will eventually become known for.

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The story of Escher falling in love and getting married is narrated over lots of photos of him and his wife, Jetta, back in the 1920s. While it’s nice that we have these historical fragments to look back on, these photo montages quickly begin to feel over-used. The interviews used in the film are sparse, with Stephen Fry’s narration being used instead often, but the interviews make for more interesting story-telling. Fry’s narration works best over images of Escher’s work — later in the film, animated sequences using Escher’s own drawings are the most fun to watch, along with actual footage of Escher at work.

One of the most interesting bits of Escher’s story is how much traveling he was able to do, and how the architecture and décor of each place he visited influenced his style. Escher’s son, Giorgo, talks about the influence fascism had on him as a young boy living in Italy, and how Escher moved his family to get away from fascism. The family landed in Belgium; Escher’s youngest son, Jan, talks about how during this time of Hitler’s rise to power was when Escher really turned to his studio and began to experiment with what would ultimately become the style Escher is known for.

'M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity' Review: Style over substance

M.C. Escher – Ascending and Descending (1960)

A further exploration of how living through World War II in Europe would have benefitted this story; this would have been a good chance for Journey to Infinity to interview biographers, historians, and art historians. Instead, Fry narrates how Escher became more entranced with the mathematical problems of his work than the aesthetic value. Escher himself questions if his work, at this point, can still be considered art. This is an interesting question for an artist like Escher, who’s been left out of the fine art world and instead has had his work become more commercialized. Disappointingly, Journey to Infinity does not linger on or explore this question.

Fry narrates how after the war, Escher continues on in his “journey to infinity”; the mathematical problem of how to create infinity within his works, how to find “endlessness within a limited plane”. The best moments of this documentary come when the influence of Escher’s work is shown; like the Penrose staircase in 2010’s Inception. The end credits of Journey to Infinity shows us more re-imaginings of Escher’s work in contemporary art and film, and unfortunately this content is more interesting than the majority of the documentary itself.

Journey to Infinity perhaps would have worked better either as a biopic or as an exploration of the significance of Escher’s work, and the question of whether or not he can be considered a fine artist. This is touched on, briefly, but the film instead is entirely focused on Fry’s narration of Escher’s journals. The film is described as “equal parts history, psychology, and psychedelia”, but it feels mainly like a very straight forward biography. M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity may be interesting to those who are already fans of Escher’s work; it’s great to see where some of his influences came from, but overall, it’s lacking as a piece of documentary story telling.

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity comes out February 5

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