“Sums up the genius of Escher himself, an orderly man who made inexhaustibly extraordinary things”
“M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972) is one of the great conundrums of modern art. He is an artist whose work is as instantly recognisable as anything by Salvador Dalí, yet his name means more to an euro-continental audience but little to a british audience. Escher was never affiliated to any group, rarely travelling far from his modest home in the Dutch town of Baarn, and focusing exclusively on graphic art. He was a one-man art movement who created some of the most famous and popular images in modern art, yet he remains a complete enigma.
“The Amazing World of M.C. Escher” exhibition features over 100 prints and drawings spanning his whole career, and is drawn in its entirety from the Geemeentemuseum in The Hague, in the Netherlands, which holds an almost complete set of Escher’s prints. It is also mounted in collaboration with the Escher in Het Paleis, a museum of Escher’s work which opened in the centre of The Hague in 2002.
The Early Work
Whilst studying to become an architect in Haarlem, Netherlands, one of Escher’s teachers advised him to move to the graphic art department instead. However the influence of his early studies is apparent, as buildings, distorted and re-invented, remained the primary focus of his work.
In 1922, during a visit to the Alhambra, a fourteenth century castle in Granada, Spain, Escher became intrigued by the repeat patterns that exemplify Islamic art, and how repeated designs created visual puzzles.
Escher settled in Rome in 1924. His work of this period shows an interest in peculiar perspectives, pattern making and an obsession with minute detail. Much of this is apparent in his later works.
Transformation and Double Imagery
Years later, in 1937, Escher returned to the Alhambra and once again studied the patterned tiles. The patterns and repeated imagery of the Islamic tiles soon found their way into his work but with a twist. Whereas the tiles were composed of abstract, geometric shapes, Escher’s works were mainly figurative.
In his ‘transformation’ prints, such as Day and Night (1938) (where a flock of white birds fly into the night, whilst a flock of black birds fly into the light in the opposite direction), Escher makes the impossible look real. In Reptiles 1943, he depicts the creatures with such incredible detail and three-dimensional weight that they seem to crawl, fully formed, from a flat, two-dimensional drawing into a real world of living, breathing things.
During World War II Escher lived with his family in The Netherlands. He made few works during the wartime period, however one of his best-known works, Encounter (1944), was created at this time.
Whereas in the late 1930s he had concentrated on images composed of repeating patterns which fit together like tiles but transform into other forms, in the 1940s he began to concentrate on the paradoxical nature of art and illusion: highlighting the contradiction between works which are flat and two-dimensional, yet which represent three-dimensional things. Although there are parallels between Escher’s work and Surrealism, he had no contact at all with the Surrealist group.
The Late Work
In the 1950s Escher’s fame spread throughout Europe and America, and in 1951 articles on the artist were published in Timeand Life magazines. Demand for his prints in America grew so strong, and consumed so much of his time and energy, that he kept raising his prices in an effort to slow down sales. This didn’t work. A defining moment came in 1954 when an Escher exhibition was held in Amsterdam. Coinciding with an international conference of mathematicians, it was seen by visitors from all over the world.
Two British-born mathematicians, Roger Penrose and HSM Coxeter, who saw the exhibition inadvertently helped Escher create some of his last prints. However, Escher’s interest in mathematics was limited and pragmatic: he acquired whatever knowledge he needed in order to make the images he wanted to make. At the same time, Escher became celebrated in a completely different world: that of pop culture and psychedelic art. Bemused by the attention, Escher liked nothing better than to concentrate on his work in peace and quiet. In 1969 he produced what was to be his last work, Snakes – a complicated woodblock which involved nine separate, interlocking printing procedures. He died on 27 March 1972, aged seventy-three.”
“Escher created some of the most memorable artworks of the last century. You return to those old reproductions with a new respect for his meticulous technique. But Escher’s artworks aren’t just exercises in artistic wizardry. He questions our perceptions of reality. “Are you absolutely sure a floor can’t also be a ceiling?” he once asked, impishly. After you’ve seen this exhibition, a staircase or a waterfall will never look quite the same again”.
© Image: M.C. Escher, “Hand with Reflecting Sphere”, 1935. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company – Baarn, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com
Images©Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art&Dulwich Picture Gallery
“The Amazing World of MC Escher” : at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh until 27 September, and then at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 14 October until 17 January 2016.