The Case for Escher's 'Angels and Devils'
Aldous Huxley wrote, upon his visit to Palazzo della Residenza in the town of Sansepolcro (Italy): "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world."
He was talking about a fresco painting by Piero della Francesca titled The Resurrection.
Quite the claim. In fact, an incredible claim. And the more you observe the fresco, the more likely you are to become bewildered by the statement. The painting itself is tremendous. Jesus's gaze is intoxicating, you can't look away. The composition feels triumphant, victory over death, a true resurrection in the midst of sleeping guards, who have yet to wake up to the miracle. It's a mesmerizing work of art... but, the greatest picture in the world?
You may agree with Huxley and you have all the right to. That's the beauty of art. It's subjective, it's visceral, it evokes thoughts and emotions which are unique to each individual. You may look at this fresco and think Yes, this is the best painting of all time. Or you may think the opposite.
If you made a worldwide census on the subject of the best work of art ever, you would most likely get the Mona Lisa. Why? Most people wouldn't be able to offer an explanation. It just is, right? It's the most popular one, it's made by da Vinci, it's in the Louvre. It has to be.
So in your intellectual endeavour, to put objectivity in this subjective world, you might turn to the academia. To the art professors, art historians, perhaps even the conservators, the art dealers, curators of museums, artists themselves etc. They would arm you with certain categories which define a true masterpiece. They might point you to revolutions in art techniques over the centuries, the different art movements, the themes which ruled certain ages... What you would end up with is a really varied spectrum of what makes a great work of art and a realization that even the academics can't decide on what is the best. Yet somehow Mona Lisa would still be on top, mysteriously.
One work of art which would never be considered the best of all time, is Maurits Cornelis Escher's "Angels and Devils". Here is why I think it is.
A few things to get out the way. I know what you're thinking... it isn't even a painting! Okay, probably not what you thought of at first, but to make clear, it isn't. Escher was best known for drawing and printmaking, to my knowledge he never worked on canvas. You might be thinking...well, this is just a more complex version of the yin yang symbol. Kinda. But to simplify it to that extent is to take away its true magic and power. There is actually a high likelihood that this wasn't even Escher's favorite work of his, but behind this piece is a story, which I think brings up the three neccesary categories, which define the greatest work of art ever. The three categories which this piece captures and the categories by which I judge any work of art are:
1.) Rational: it doesn't take a mathematician to make this tessellation, but it certainly helps. The complexity to create a composition like this is beyond a simple 'sketch and hope', it requires a lot of time to perfect the pattern, all the calculations and neccesary measures to create an image which interweaves these two opposing symbols, the angel and the devil. It's no wonder that Escher is often quoted as the "mathematician's favorite artist", because of his immense ability to include geometric patterns and mathematical impossibilites into a 2D image.
On this level, the artwork pulls us in with the perfectly matching pattern. The symmetry of the composition is deeply pleasing to our analytical brain, which finds the tessellation to be beautifully designed. Another thing which this piece leaves us with is the question how did he do that? How does one approach the design of such a tessellation? Where do you even begin?There is a magic power in questions like these which breed curiosity and discovery. A beautiful recipe for any work of art which aims to really capture our attention.
2.) Symbolic: This one ties in with the rational quite heavily, as well as relying on the emotional. The symbols which Escher chose for this piece are deeply engrained in us, from the time we first developed a sense of rational morality. The duality of the good and the evil. The angels and the devils. Escher used different subjects for different tessellations in his other works(pictured left), but for me, the 'Angels and Devils' is where he truly captured the essence where this duality of oppossing images really conveys a powerful message.
What you see is the image of angels and devils (the latter look more like initial drafts for batman, but that's neither here nor there). What probably catches your attention first are the black figures, in western cultures we are more used to white being the background colour. But here's the key. Black figures use the angels as the background and vice versa. You can never view one without the other falling into the background. Here we draw back to the rational part, the symmetry of the composition and its high contrast very pleasingly complete the artwork into a whole and make the illusion truly work.
But it also feeds on our emotional perception. It makes us question this reality in real life, how our focus can be as easily obscured as it is here. What we focus on is what we will see, in abundance, in fact. "If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will," to quote Abraham Lincoln. This piece is a visual interpretation of that quote, but it explores it even more deeply.
Symbollism is vital to any artwork. The subjects it uses and the way it puts them into a composition signify a certain meaning or a message. It is important that those symbols are readable and understandble, otherwise the symbollism is lost. And any artwork without symbols...well, that is arguably not an artwork.
3.) Emotional: The way art impacts us emotionally is truly subjective and here is where all methods of academic determination and evaluation fall through, because it is here where we all have a right to an equal opinion. How we feel about any work of art is completely up to us. So what does 'Angels and Devils' do for me?
It combines the first two categories in such a way, it creates a powerful impact. From the analytical observation to the symbolic value, it portrays a simple message with admirable detail. It shows an age-old religious question almost in a way of graphic design, where its bare essentials are conveyed clearly and precisely. The battle of good and evil has never had a better visual-psychological profile than this work by M.C. Escher.
So is this the greatest picture in the world? For me, yes. Speaking generally, maybe not.
But I will argue that it should go in that same category as the Mona Lisa.