As we descended, first through a small opening, then down a larger slope, we were entering a distorted, upside-down world. Arches of rock criss-crossed above us, tunnels disappeared at warped angles and the faint light came in from the huge openings above us. The feeble luminosity meant that the world was now drawn in black and white, the snow contrasting with the darker rocks. Like one of M.C. Escher’s famous prints, up and down had started to lose its meaning. Everything was relative. Not only had the surroundings changed, we had started by abseiling down before climbing a snowy ramp. Our actions were fittingly in reverse!
Maurits Cornelius Escher was a Dutch artist who intuitively explored the worlds of mathematical ideas, such as symmetry, perspective and infinity, and gave them a natural dimension and aesthetic representation. Although he had no formal training, his art form brought him into contact with celebrated mathematicians of his era, which in turn spawned new masterpieces. Inspired by the beautiful geometric patterns he encountered in the Alhambra in Spain, he built upon them and created motifs containing birds, fish and other fantastical animals that would have been forbidden to the Muslim masters. Nature was represented in a panoply of shapes and illusions, tessellating the plain in all directions. His work on infinity tries to graphically show the concept in a though provoking manner whereas his representations of impossible worlds, where perspective is subjective, are perhaps his most famous legacy. They indeed brought impossible shapes to life. Escher’s work has not only intrigued mathematicians, but has permeated into popular culture. It has featured in and influenced films, such as “The Labyrinth” starring David Bowie, or Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”, where the distortions possible in the dream world make the impossible a reality.
To find a real life disorientating print, you need to venture out onto the bleak plateau of Font d’Urle in the southern Vercors. Here, the elements have moulded the landscape. If you go in winter, it is possible that they are still hard at work, and it is not unusual to encounter wind and snow. Amongst the curiosities of the sculpted panorama, the Cloches are hidden in a small dell, protected on one side by beech and pine trees. If your visit takes place after a violent snowstorm, everything will be painted white, and only the dark openings in the ground will contrast with the surroundings. Approaching the entrance, snow will hide the lip of the chasm, and you will have to look for the safest approach. Once on the edge, you can look down into the world below. Snow flows down the steep sides and ice formations grow on the overhanging walls, creating huge icicles. To enter, an abseil needs to be attached to a tree or rock before you can slowly inch your way down and discover the interior. There are multiple entrances, the easiest giving into the central bell-shaped chamber via a small arch and a slope. Other entrances are either steeper or completely vertical, demanding a good ascending technique for the return trip. By following several small tunnels and balconies the entire snow palace can be visited, and there are multiple bolts to ensure a safe progression. With several levels, that interconnect via small abseils and galleries, it is puzzling at first, much like the famous infinite staircases created by the artist’s pen.
I have been fascinated M.C. Escher’s universe since I discovered the first prints and put a name to them. There is something very satisfying in the complex designs. The lack of colour in many of his most famous pieces, imposed by the techniques used (lithography and wood prints) is also appealing, for it highlights the symmetry and contrast between the motifs. Each masterpiece hints at different ideas, and the sheer technical skill and harmony is very gratifying. For me a great work of art is one that is aesthetically pleasing, thus transmitting a pleasurable emotion, or something that breaks boundaries, thus pushing you to think and explore new concepts. Escher clearly managed to do both.
One of techniques used by Escher to create his precise works was lithography. By using this method it is possible to create prints from an etched stone or metal plate, from which the image is transferred. To prepare the original, unlike a wooden stamp where certain sections are cut away by hand, the picture is drawn onto the substrate using a special oil-based ink. The stone is then treated with a chemical that will etch only the regions not protected by the ink. Once the stone is finished, it is used to create the final image. The Dutch master is known to have wiped the stones blank after a limited edition of prints, thus adding to their uniqueness. If, instead of drawing with ink, the pattern is projected onto a photosensitive resin it is known as photo-lithography, which is the basis of all modern microelectronics fabrication. Concerning the stones used in the classic lithographic method, they are made of limestone or calcium carbonate, the same material making up the caverns around us. Unsurprisingly, the process that has hollowed out the mountain is the same as the one used for the fine prints. Instead of concentrated acids, it is rainwater, made slightly acidic by the plants living on the surface, that has eaten away at the rock over aeons. By slowly dissolving the carbonate ions, it has emptied out vast underground galleries. It is a natural work of art.
We visited this geological masterpiece on two occasions. The first was in late December before the snow had fallen, on a bitter New Years’ eve. We set up camp, just above the magnificent cliffs that mark the limit of the high plateaus. Having watched the clouds slide off the mountains like a lethargic river, covering the valleys with a white blanket, it was our turn to snuggle into our sleeping bags. We spent a frigid night on the edge, beneath bright stars. Next morning we woke up to a stunning sunrise, that slowly lit up the sky. It brought colour back to the world and warmth to our bodies. Once we had thawed out sufficiently we set off to find the Cloches, armed with a description, some climbing gear and high hopes. Having walked past it the first time, we finally found the small dell and ventured into the depths. Our first exploration was encumbered by two difficulties. Not only did we not know the way, but the rocky slopes were slippery and we had not brought enough kit (a second rope) to advance into the other chambers. We were of course fascinated by the place and decided to return.
A whole year passed, before we found a suitable day for our second attempt. For this trip, it had snowed properly. The wind had done its work and plastered every inch of exposed rock and branch with long white crystals, giving a magic feel to the forest. We used skis to approach the opening, buffeted by the strong gusts that were still sweeping the plateau. Luckily we knew the way this time, as thick fog limited our visibility. We glided into the clearing and prepared ourselves. Once we had set up the abseil, it was in fact very agreeable to get out of the biting wind and descend into the world of rock and ice. It was quiet. This time the snow covered the steep ramps making in much easier to progress from one chamber to the other, cushioning our steps. With the extra equipment we made it into the other caverns, admiring the icicles and rounded ice shapes. Although the storm had brought slightly warmer weather, there were still plenty of frozen formations attached to the walls. Above us the flat world, dictated by rigid perspective was no match for this beautiful reality of imagined shapes and bleak contrasts.
The localisation and description of the Cloches de Font d’Urle can be found in Pascal Sombardier’s book Vercors Secret, amongst many other incredible places to be explored and enjoyed. It has been a source of inspiration for many of our trips into this wild massif.
To find out more about Escher’s life and art there are plenty of books and internet sites to visit. The official museum is in The Hague, as well as on my wish-list. A documentary, narrated by the celebrated mathematician Roger Penrose explaining some of their work together can be watched here. The description of lithographic technique for fine arts can be watched here.