Saturday, November 26, 2011

Henry Hemmendinger Contemplating a Print of M. C. Escher

We know Rembrandt’s painting, Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. Now behold Hugh Fairman’s essay… 
            In the early 1990s, Henry Hemmendinger’s son got married in San Francisco. Henry was walking the streets there one afternoon when he chanced upon an art gallery that was exhibiting M. C. Escher prints. There, in a well-lit (with daylight) stair-well, he found an Escher print that he interpreted to be a daylight scene of the sun reflecting from a puddle of water. That evening he took his wife to see the exhibit. This time the daylight was missing, and the puddle print was illuminated with incandescent light. Henry was convinced that the print now depicted the moon reflecting from the puddle.
            For years thereafter, Henry wondered whether Escher knew enough about spectral interaction of light with matter to be able to create something resembling a metamer between the daylight illumination of the print and the incandescent illumination of it. In the early 2000s, he became aware that John Horton Conway, an esteemed mathematician and fellow resident of Princeton, N.J., had studied Escher’s tilings of the plane from a purely mathematical standpoint and had published extensively on that subject. Henry contacted Conway with his thoughts on the puddle print. Conway lent Henry all his books on Escher, and in one of those Henry identified the print he thought he had seen in San Francisco.
            The print Henry identified was Escher’s Puddle, a 1951 lithograph which was in two colors on white paper (called three-color print in the art world). It may be viewed at First find M. C. Escher in left-hand column (perhaps under “All artists”), then click on the Puddle print. . The original is 9½ by 12½ inches in size. It carries Escher’s Catalogue Number 175.
One can be pretty sure that Escher intended the whitish disk to be interpreted ambiguously by the viewer either as the moon or as the sun. I offer as evidence of this the following items taken as a whole:
1) On the 29th of October in 1963, Escher gave a lecture in Amsterdam in which he said:
 “If you want to focus the attention on something non-existent, then you have to try to fool yourself first and then your audience, by presenting your story in such a way that the element of impossibility is veiled, so that the superficial listener doesn’t even notice it. There has to be a certain enigma in it, which does not immediately catch the eye.”
2) A series of elements in the print all appear in pairs.
        a) There are two bicycle tracks in the mud. One rear-tire track crosses the front track in the mud; the other rear-tire track crosses the front under the puddle in the water. One bicycle track overlaps no other object in the print; the other bicycle track intercepts a footprint.
        b) There are two truck, or tractor, tire tracks in the mud. The two tracks were made at a different time from each other ; they overlap. That is, one of the truck’s right tire track is inside the other’s left tire track. I presume that Escher would never, under these conditions, allow both trucks to be going in the same direction. One tire tread consists of two zig-zags and two straight beads; the other of two deep, parallel treads and a single bead, imparting a duality to even the tire treads.
        c) There are two human foot-print tracks in the mud, going in opposite directions. One walker wore hob-nail boots; the other wore plain soled shoes. The right footprints of both tracks contain two prints, both dry. The left footprint in each case is singular and it is water-filled in both cases.
        d) There are two large trees in the foreground of the reflection and two small trees in the background of the reflection.  For these trees, Escher reused trees he had drawn in 1933 in a woodcut called Calvi, Corsica (Escher Catalog Number 56). If the reader believes it is a stretch to cite the use of two trees each here, be informed that the 1933 print had four large trees and eight small trees. Escher must, therefore, have carefully chosen a sub-section, and the appearance of duality here must have been conscious.       
        e) The season is Spring or Summer; but not Fall or Winter. There are leaves on the trees.
        f) Of course, mud and puddle is the ultimate duality of the print. Sometimes duality is achieved by sameness; sometimes by differentness. That is how we know that Escher intended to communicate duality rather than differentness, or sameness.

            There are, therefore, enough occurrences of duality in the print that it is almost certain that Escher, in accordance with his lecture precept. was leading the observer to the duality, or ambiguity, of whether the orbital object was the sun or the moon. It is highly unlikely, then, that the interaction of lighting quality is causing the ambiguity. Escher has put duality in our head, and we can interpret the orb as we wish as sun or as moon.
Hugh S. Fairman
[Editor’s note: I think the light helps with the duality. The sky around the orb is greenish, and will be darker (relative to the white orb) under tungsten light than under daylight. A dark sky implies night rather than day, and Moon rather than Sun. Perhaps readers can also think of other mechanisms. MHB]