2011. február 13., vasárnap

UNDER THE PRETEXT OF IMPOSSIBILITES

– I can't believe THAT! – said Alice.
– Can't you? – the Queen said in a pitying tone. – Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.Alice laughed. – There's no use trying, she said: one CAN'T believe impossible things.
– I daresay you haven't had much practice, said the Queen. – When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

(Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass)

Do you remember Josef K.? Kafka’s novel, The Trial, was a cult classic of the era, when I mainly spent my time reading, and time seemed endless, as opposed to space, which was narrow, articulated by closed and dense prohibitory signs. In the course of the narrative, once K. visits a painter friend, who as it happens, lives in a district that is at the far end of the city, namey in the corner falling farthest from the offices of the dreaded court. When K. prepares to leave after the visit, the painter proposes an exit in the tiny garret or so-called studio, which K. had not even noticed until then. Only by climbing on the bed was it possible to go through the door, which naturally opens onto exactly the wide corridor of the courthouse offices. Kafkaesque – we referred in those times to such twists, and then we added Orwellian, but of course, the absurd short stories of István Örkény could have also come to mind.

If I would like to explain, at least to myself, why I ever even began to deal with so-called impossible objects, or at least with these constructions that can be easily drawn on two-dimensional paper, but cannot be built in our three-dimensional world, a possible explanation might be found in that queer background world, sometimes playful, sometimes oppressively bleak, that appears in the works of the authors mentioned above.
If we seek the visual art equivalent of the impossible and tragic space closed in on itself of The Trial, we might recall Prisons of the Imagination (Carceri d'invenzione). According to legend, the twenty-two-year-old Giovanni Battista Piranesi began his series of Prisons etchings when he was ill with malaria. According to interpretations, it could only have been attributed to a high fever that he had pushed off so far from a “normal” depiction, drawing such distorted constructions impossible to build, reminiscent of multilevel labyrinths, of such strange structure. Large, oppressive architectural spaces appear on the etchings, with the exception of a few staffage figures roaming out of their element, strings of halls virtually devoid of people, which, though each reflects such a capricious, spectacular, fantastic world, we experience as a living organisam – to borrow the analogy from Victor Hugo: for enormous brains.*

If we don’t seek such ancient analogies of the visual art representations of impossible situations, generally it is M. C. Escher’s name that comes up. The Dutch graphic artist’s notorius lithographs, particularly his masterpieces referred to as “the most Escheresque Eschers” by Bruno Ernst, Belvedere, Waterfall and Ascending and Descending come to mind first. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of M. C. Escher’s elder son; George said that his father had a Piranesi album, and it was evident that the frequently turned pages of Prisons reproductions influenced his work. Naturally, much more rational, calculated working phases preceded Escher’s lithographs than the creation of Prisons; the passion for creating atmosphere is practically lacking from them completely, and yet with his intervention, artistic tendencies of the late 20th century that could be apostrophised as a Piranesi-Renaissance are consummated, which are represented by the works of Shigeo Fukuda, Jos de Mey, or even Tamás F. Farkas; moreover, even the artist who is considered today’s most direct incarnation of Piranesi often cannot avoid completely Escher’ mediating role: Erik Desmaziéres. Of course, impossible objects can also emerge from the hands of clumsy draughtsmen, at least according to Hogarth, who wrote this beneath an amusing engraving, in which visual paradoxes were collected into a bouquet: “Whoever makes a design without the knowledge of perspective will be liable to such absurdities.”**

Erudite mathematicians have also participated in the construction of visual paradoxes alongside the artists – and sometimes even before the artists. Most probably the best-known and “simplest” impossible object is the “tribar”. It has been used so often in the visual arts, design, advertising, and even in fields of psychology, has become such a familiar symbol over the course of the 20th century, that by now it almost does not even enter our minds to inquire into its origin. Scholars generally refer to the unusual triangle as the Penrose Triangle, because it was the later celebrated mathematician Roger Penrose who published it first.*** In 1956, still a student, Penrose was introduced to the works of Escher at a show in Amsterdam, and under this influence, he began to draw “impossibilities”, and to dissect paradoxes from a mathematical angle. Penrose could not have known – moreover, at the time, nor could Escher, that a young man living in Sweden, Oscar Reuterswärd, who had engaged with impossible objects for quite some time; in fact, he had already invented and drawn the “tribar” decades previous. Alongside Roger Penrose and Reutersvärd, we should not forget other scientists, as well as the names of other forms made famous. Such is the Necker Cube, the Blivet, the Duchamp painting made infamous as the “Impossible Bed”, or simply the recurring staircase, invented by Lionel Penrose, Roger’s father.****

Of course, it is also valid to mention these antecedents in connection with my own work, among them the inspiration of Escher’s oeuvre. I could not meet personally with Escher, as he died just when I, in Budapest, at the Academy of Applied Arts, began my acquaintance with the highlights of geometry under the instruction of professors Dénes Gulyás and Ernő Rubik. I felt as if Escher was a distant relative, when I worked with his own papers, as well as when I could arrange a solo show as one of the first guest artists at the Escher Museum opened in The Hague.***** I also had only an indirect connection with Oscar Reutersvärd, called the “father of impossible objects”. Bruno Ernst sent his last letter to me, which he had written shortly before his death, and he asked for my help in deciphering a passage in the letter. Reutersvärd ruminated on the realisation of new “impossible figures”, differing from the ones until then, which so far he could see only with his inner vision, though – as he wrote – if he would succeed in drawing them, he “would even be capable of depicting an inside-out Eiffel Tower”.****** The text containing scanty concrete information, yet interesting implications set my imagination in motion, and it had an indisputable impact on a few of my works, though I could never be sure if I had truly proceeded, following Reutersvärd.

To truly construct the “impossible objects” in three dimensions would be that which was perfectly inconceivable, wouldn’t it? Well yes, and no. Shigeo Fukuda undertook to build sculptures that are just like Escher drawings as viewed from a certain point, but be careful: the magic works only and exclusively from that specific point; if the viewpoint shifts, then the trick is revealed, and what was just a perfectly arranged composition transforms into a cavalcade of tangled building elements. In parallel with Fukuda, a number of European and American artists have also recognised that the forms alleged to be impossible are unfathomable only for a traditional school of thought determined by convention, while in a more artful reading – if you will, with anamorphic vision – they are not unrealistic. These works – among them, more than one paraphrase interpreting Escher pictures – were presented together at the international exhibition series organised for the one-hundredth anniversary of Escher’s birth. I have met Fukuda often and we have also taken part in exhibitions together several times. At an opening, when I referred to him as my master, he eluded the compliment by saying: we had a common master. Presumably we both had Escher in mind.

Is it lying if the artist depicts a space and places objects in it that contradict the customary vision? Is it escapism if he invents a world for himself in possession of unknown laws and new rules, so that he can cross over from the hated old into this? And does he not do all this, he doesn’t allow the trickery concealed in the image to be so easily noticed, sometimes calling attention himself to the cunning solutions, so that he will be caught as soon as possible?

Corner house at the intersection of Andrássy út and Népköztársaság útja. Those familiar with recent Hungarian history can determine precisely, on the basis of the title, the verbal paradox concealed in it, just when the etching would have been made. It is not easy to decide whether the picture represents a corner house, or a courtyard, if the lines indicate convex or concave forms. We might call it a question of viewpoint, entrusting judgment to the psychologists: whether we were born for freedom, or rather for slavery.

I am prepared to concede that the universe of paradoxes is not equally alluring to everyone. A well-known story about Einstein occurs to me, who returned the Kafka volume he had borrowed from Thomas Mann with the following words – as it happens, exactly that one about Josef K., which I mentioned in above: “I was unable to read it: human thinking cannot be that complicated.”


* “Le noir cerveau de Piranese / Est une béante fournaise / Ou se melent l'arche et le ciel, / L'escalier, la tour, la colonne; / Ou croît, monte, s'enfle et bouilonne / L'incommensurable Babel!"
** Hogarth wrote this in 1754 beneath an etching, in which he collected 16 obviously visual impossibilities and countless graphic goofs. With the picture intended for the book cover, he supposedly wanted to ridicule an aristocrat patron of the arts.
*** Roger Penrose published the drawing of his triangle in the February 1958 issue of the British Journal of Psychology. Escher made his lithograph entitled Waterfall on the basis of the drawing.
**** The impossible staircase also appeared in the February 1958 issue of the British Journal of Psychology, together with the tribar invented by Roger Penrose. Upon seeing the drawing, Escher produced his lithograph entitled Ascending and Descending.
***** In addition to an Escher sketch, Bruno Ernst gave me blank sheets of paper that he had found in Escher’s estate. In October 2005 my exhibition entitled Orosz bij Escher (Orosz at Escher’s) opened at the Escher Museum in The Hague.
****** "Since some weeks I am industrious, productive and innovative. Above all I am on the track of a quite different and another type of impossible figure, I can see it for my inner sight. It mixes up what is near and distant in an overwhelming way. I hope that I perhaps will carry out and realise this "discovery". I have gone through series of trials and errors, but not yet achieved a "credible" result. When I will succeed, perhaps I will be able to draw an inside-out Eiffel tower”. (1 April 2001)

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