From Escher to Liotard
I was struck by an article in The Times a few weeks ago (24 June) from which I learned that, running head to head with the Liotard exhibition I have already blogged about, Edinburgh also has one devoted to MC Escher. Both are rather quaintly being billed as obscure artists who should be better known: Escher as a “conundrum” whose “name means little to a British audience”; Liotard as the “greatest artist of the 18th century whom nobody knows”. I’m not sure what the Advertising Standards Authority would make of those statements. But The Times article makes a further claim which initially I thought I should ignore, since addressing it inevitably runs the risk of sounding patronising or worse. For to declare an interest I was once (in the very distant past) a D.Phil. student of Sir Roger Penrose, whose admiration for Escher was the subject of the article, and the allegation in the article was that conventional art historians look down their noses at Escher’s work. Not quite Jack Vetriano, perhaps; but “not one of us” as Penrose is quoted as putting it.
I ought perhaps to see the exhibition before writing about it, but let me at least justify the charge of arrogance by blogging about it without doing so (and when I go to see the Liotard I shall probably prefer to spend all my time there). So I pulled out my childhood copy of The Graphic Work of M. C. Escher (a translation from the Dutch work originally issued in 1960: a language which I would not then have attempted to read in the original) – and at the same time, a book which I have owned from an even earlier age, and which offers a good way of explaining the distinction: it is G. H. Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology.
No one – certainly not one given Hardy as an impressionable infant – could possibly dispute that there is not beauty to be found in mathematics. And I’m not going to rehearse the tiresome debate about “what is art” from undergraduate philosophy courses. But the point about Escher’s work is that he has a terribly clever idea, and then he proceeds to explain it (illustrate it, if you like) in his work. With Liotard – or any old master art historians revere – the “painting may embody an ‘idea’, but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant”, in Hardy’s phrase. (Actually this is also true of much modern art: it’s just that the object is also as banal as the idea.) Most succinctly – and with a brilliant idea that deserves the same celebrity as the Turing test – Hardy points out that a Shakespeare play is not changed when a reader spills his tea over the page. You might be distressed if a print by Escher suffered this fate, just as I would if my beautifully printed Nonesuch Shakespeare were damaged in this way: but Escher’s idea remains as intact as Shakespeare’s creation. But a cup of tea on a Liotard pastel inflicts a wholly different category of destruction and loss. (This is essentially the distinction the philosopher Nelson Goodman had in mind when he defined works of art as either autographic or allographic according to whether the distinction between original and forgery were significant; an Escher seems to break Goodman’s rule that painting is an autographic art.)
What’s really interesting about Escher is the underlying idea – and that was done better by Penrose himself, as you can see by comparing the staircase with the impossible triangle. That has a Platonic purity to it, and in this context an extra dimension of self-referentiality in that it illustrates just how an abstract idea cannot be reduced to the page.
But of all old master artists to confront with Escher in this debate, Liotard is perhaps the most curious. Liotard too was frowned on by the establishment of his day as “not one of us”. Had the confrontation been between Escher and say Rembrandt one might continue the debate very differently. But the concern with surfaces and finish, and the elements of the hyperrealism that attracted Liotard (and baffled, and alienated, his competitors, as I discuss in my essay in the exhibition catalogue) make him a competitor with Escher for the undergraduate poster market.
One of the other things I learned from Hardy was that “the best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful”: he tells us this to explain the difference between significant research and recreational mathematics. And I have to confess that when I came across Escher I felt he was clearly in that latter camp. So when I joined Penrose’s research group I was surprised to see how differently he viewed this distinction. In many ways this for me is an unresolved issue: I can recognise that apparently aimless playing around is vital for problem solving, both in mathematics and in art history; but I could never get away from what might be called the high seriousness of the pursuit. That may have something to do with why I no longer pursue mathematics: for me there was something ludicrous in the ludic.
But there’s also a chapter, which I won’t attempt to write now, about the need to engage with society. Abstract ideas and physical objects do this very differently. Perhaps the simplest way of explaining this is to propose another test: the desert island luxury. Would it be the Escher print with its reminder of an abstract idea of great beauty, or the Liotard pastel with its depiction of a real human being (this example, the Jeu de Loto from Geneva, makes the case a little more interesting)?
Maybe the answer depends on why you’re on the island. If you expect soon to be rescued, and must put your faith in human society, you’d choose the Liotard: but if your isolation follows a catastrophe in which all humanity has been eliminated, perhaps the abstract idea will have more appeal.