The many masks of modern art

Illusion, what it is and what it represents, has become a crucial issue in our society. Philosophers, psychologists, historians, in fact members of almost every intellectual discipline, are increasingly fascinated by it, and have done all they can to identify and to expose it.

Only in art and in magic is it truly welcome, and then only if it abides by the rules. Art, especially, has very strict rules about illusion, but they can change almost overnight, and at the instigation of only a very small handful of determined and imaginative individuals. When that happens, confusion is apt to reign: what was seen as reality on Monday can easily become illusion on Wednesday, and become reality once again the Friday after that.

We need only think back to the abrupt changes brought about by Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract-Expressionism, Photo-Realism -- to name only a few -- to see how dramatically the points of view and the rules of art can change within a few short years.

Artistic truth has been redefined frequently since those 19th-century days when it was thought to consist of visual mimicry within the context of genteel sensibility. To the Victorians, the epitome of artistic truth lay in John Singer Sargent's brilliant highlights on satin, silk, and silver, effects which to us today are the very essence of shallow illusionism.

Every new movement in art is perceived first as truth and then as art, something the non-art person generally fails to understand, especially when a work that looks to him like a blob or a piece of junk is greeted with rapturous delight by an art-loving friend.

On the other hand, another art-loving friend, one who believes that the truth about art is already known, and that it lies in the art of Rembrandt, Renoir, or Cezanne, may resent and hold in absolute abomination anything new that appears on the horizon.

The real battles in art (and they can be total and deadly) are not fought over matters of beauty and skill but over matters of truth and illusion.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we have made illusion itself the subject of a great deal of our art. From the illusionistic mimicry of the Photo-Realists to the light structures of James Turrell (designed to dramatize the illusory nature of perception), we have increasingly focused our attentions on defining the distinction between what something is, and how it appears to us.

One artist who devoted a long and highly productive career to the study of illusion was Maurits Cornelis Escher, a printmaker whose image of things that couldn't be made him world famous, and a byword for certain kinds of illusionistic effects.

Not that the art world was particularly interested. Indeed, my introduction to Escher's work was in college during a lecture on perception given by a professor of psychology. It wasn't until well into the 1970s that his name began to appear fairly regularly in the art journals, and then mainly because his prints were beginning to sell for exceedingly high prices.

Since that time he has become something of a cult figure, a fact that tends to irritate the art community, where he is still regarded as little more than an extremely clever illustrator. While he may be that, his best works also have a hauntingly ambiguous quality that makes me suspect they will be admired and collected for a very long time to come.

Because Escher approached illusion from so many directions, it was difficult choosing one example of his work to represent it all.I finally decided to use "Relativity" because it deals with a subject that particularly intrigued him: the tricks that misapplied perspective can play.

Probably the most startling thing about this work is how logically illogical (or illogically logical) it is. What we have here are three separate worlds somehow coexisting and overlapping, with three separate groups of figures going about their separate businesses in their separate ways.

Although they all occupy the same space, they do so in different ways. What one group sees as a ceiling, another sees as a wall; what still another sees as a door is used as a trapdoor by the first. And, while the laws of perspective may apply, the laws of gravity do not -- or do they?

It's a thoroughly impossible situation, but one with its own mad sort of logic, the kind of logic with which we are all too familiar. Haven't we all at one time or another "lost" arguments because our opponents shifted their points of view and logic as quickly and as shrewdly as Escher shifted perspectives in his print?

I can't help feeling that our awareness of this lies behind a large part of Escher's appeal. We may enjoy his prints for their playfulness, but are also drawn to them because there is a lesson to be learned from them. And that lesson is: "Be careful, things aren't what they seem."

Escher presents his case in print after print -- in an image of a waterfall that falls a considerable distance to a spot no lower than the point from which it fell; in a hand drawing another hand, which, in turn, is drawing the first hand; in a left-to-right metamorphosis of a checkerboard into lizards -- into bees -- into birds -- into fish -- into horses -- into birds -- into cubes -- and finally back again into a checkerboard. And in the puddle of water which so clearly reflects the sky and trees above it that we have a hard time distinguishing one from the other.

Escher's fascination with making an object, a place, or an event seem like something it is not, or function as it could not, has been communicated to an entire new generation of illustrators and printmakers. Even though their art lacks the concentrated ambiguity of Escher's, and focuses more on its potential for humor and irony, these younger artists have brought an element of perceptual astonishment into areas hitherto untouched by such a vision and point of view.

Although Escher's celebration of visual trickery may seem irrelevant in a century preoccupied with formal matters in art, he nevertheless struck an important note by reminding us that the rules and laws of art are neither absolute nor infallible.

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