Ask the average patron standing outside The Getty, The MoMa, or The Louvre to name the best artists of all time, and M.C. Escher probably wouldn’t be in the first dozen names ticked off.
But show the print reproduced above, or the dual hands drawing each other, or the endlessly ascending staircase to just about anyone, whether he or she is an art aficionado or not, and chances are that person will know the creator.
Robin Lutz’s affable documentary begins with Stephen Fry reading the artist’s words puzzling over his work’s popularity with the hippie generation. People print his work on placemats, he laments. They don’t ask, they just do it. Graham Nash recalls calling Escher to express his esteem over the work only to be rebuffed by Escher’s insistence that he was not an artist. How can an artist be simultaneously so loved, so admired, and so recognized while also garnering so little of a reputation?
That’s a contradiction that Journey to Infinity never quite resolves, though it has a lot of fun trying. Bolstered by Fry’s stellar delivery of Escher’s wry, self-effacing letters, the film is entertaining enough. I would have liked a few art critics or historians to balance out the fanboy emphasis, but I doubt any of them would have been better at explaining the work than is Escher himself.
Whether Escher is waxing about the grim symbolism of figures perpetually ascending and descending or the ways in which a rock is harder to draw than a flower, his musing is filled with delightful observations that draw our attention to details in the art we may have missed.
Less successful, but still serviceable, are the biographical musings. The tale of how Escher met his future wife is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily flow with the rest of the film. Slightly better are the places where Escher talks about drawing as a grind…something he has to make himself do. There is a talent in going through the exercises and routines even when one does not feel like it.
The film is part of Kino Marquee, and passes to stream the film online can be purchased to support local theater hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. To find a theater near you, check out a list of participating theaters at: https://zeitgeistfilms.com/film/mcescherjourneytoinfinity