The Amazing World of M.C. Escher @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever British exhibition of the work of Dutch graphic artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), well known for the mind-boggling optical illusions he created in scores of prints, reproduced in posters, book covers and throughout the culture. Over 100 prints are gathered together along with an extremely informative audio commentary and fascinating wall labels.

Parents and patterns

Escher’s father was a civil engineer and he himself started out training as an architect before switching to graphic art. In 1922 he visited Spain and the Alhambra where he was smitten by the beauty of Islamic tiles, tiles laid in a vast variety of geometric patterns. This introduced the notion of tessalation, where tiles or geometric elements are arranged with no gaps to create a continuous surface. In the first room the commentary gives a useful list of the character of Escher’s prints, whatever the subject matter:

  • pattern
  • the whole surface covered equally, with no fading at the edges or foregrounding of key elements
  • minute attention to detail

Italy

As to subject matter, from the start he showed an interest in optical effects. His 1922 trip to Spain also included Italy and it was here he met his wife, settled and lived for a decade, spent months on trips to remote out of the way mountain villages, and created scores of images of those Italian towns built on the edges of hills and steep slopes.

The first room has lots of these showing his interest in a) buildings b) buildings and landscape together considered as semi-abstract patterns c) odd points of view, from either high up or low down.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

During the later 1920s and 1930s he produced a wide range of these landscapes along with figurative prints of the images around him, including a number of self-portraits, though refracted through his interest in oddities of perspective.

Weak faces

One thing we learn from the exhibition is Escher wasn’t so good at the human figure or face. In the image above the striking thing is, obviously, the distorting effect of the glass globe he’s reflected in. The detail of the hand is marvellous. And the head… it’s simplistic, cartoon-y. Later there are several close-ups of a human eye, presumably the artist’s own, featuring the reflection of a skull in the pupil. Reminds me of the kind of thing you see in sixth form art departments, very capable but trite.

Compare and contrast with Balcony from 1945, displaying a similar interest in the distorting effect of a convex mirror, but  this time applying it – surreally – to a building. Semi-abstract tessalations excellent – buildings good – people, not so hot.

Back to northern Europe

It was the growing impact of Mussolini’s Fascism on Italian life, the fact his sons had to wear semi-military uniforms to school and so on, that drove Escher to leave Italy in 1935, moving first to Switzerland, then to Brussels, then early in the war to the Netherlands, where he lived the rest of his life.

The exhibition suggests that, deprived of the – itself slightly fantastical – scenery of Italy and now immersed in the grey, cloudy, flat and dull landscape of northern Europe, Escher sought solace or expression in an increasingly inner vision.

A classic example of this is one of his most popular prints, Day and Night (1938), where you can see landscape changing into abstract pattern, combined with the trick or device of having one half of the picture in day, one in night. The commentary says it was very popular and Escher was pestered by agents to run off more prints. Eventually he became so sick of it, he started raising the price to deter buyers, but that only made them more keen. Human nature. It also points out a good example of Escher’s attention to detail. In the town on the left, it is daytime and the streets are filled with tiny figures going about their work. In the night-time town, there are no figures, everyone is at home which is why the lights are on.

M.C. Escher, Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Another classic from this period is Still Life and Street (1937). It takes a moment for the viewer to realise that the perfectly naturalistic street scene has been set on top of a table next to some books and a pipe.

Throughout the exhibition runs Escher’s sense that there is something absurd about trying to convey three dimensional images in a two dimensional medium. This recurring fascination with the absurdity of his own craft is reflected in Reptiles, where miniature lizard-crocodiles clamber out of a two dimensional illustration, over the artist’s desktop clutter, and back into the original flat image. It’s funny but (as the saying goes) is it art? Or a higher form of cartoon?

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Shape over symbol

It’s interesting that Escher eschewed any symbolism in his works. There is no psychology or politics or personal messages or any meaning of any kind. He wanted to amaze and entertain. On the one hand this is admirable. On the other, it might contribute to the sense that the images are somehow not serious. Continuing that thought, the exhibition points out that the kind of shapes he used – for example the frequently-found lizard motif – is little to do with their ‘meaning’, everything to do with their usefulness in creating tessalations and patterns, as the title of this one suggests – Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The pathos of hands

This is one his great images, Drawing hands from 1948, after the horrors of the war were over. It shows the same interest in the 2D/3D conundrum as the lizards from 1943, combined with the jokey circularity of a hand drawing the first hand drawing the second hand etc. For my money this is the only work among the 100 here which really qualifies as a ‘work of art’ because of the extraordinary pathos of the hands, drawn with a challenging insight into age, mortality, experience and suffering.

The commentary emphasises that Escher was uninfluenced by all the art movements of his day, was a one-man art movement and more interested in the precise draughtsmanship of late medieval artists. Well, I’d suggest a kinship between this image and Albrecht Dürer’s famous image of praying hands.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The 1950s

By the 1950s he had found his voice and the works from this period include many of his most famous visual paradoxes. He became more widely known and attracted the attention of a number of mathematicians who collaborated and shared ideas about mathematical patterns and paradoxes. There is a lengthy explanation of Escher’s relationship with British father-and-son mathematicians, Lionel and Roger Penrose, inventors of the Penrose Stairs, which Escher then used as the basis for Ascending and Descending (below).

M.C. Escher, Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

He perfected the depiction of impossible buildings, buildings which contain two perspectives at the same time, the most famous being the image of the figures going up a flight of steps arranged in a square which never seems to end, but there are plenty of other examples of the same mind-bending games with perspective.

  • Up and Down (1947) At the bottom you are looking at the scene from below, but due to some alchemy of the arrangement of the images by the time you’ve scanned to the top you are looking at the same image from above. The commentary points out that if you had two copies and laid them one on top of the other they would join seamlessly. the series is potentially infinitely replicable.
  • Relativity (1953)
  • Convex and Concave (1953)
  • Ascending and Descending (1960)

Note his early training as an architect. Note, also, the cartoon, storybook-illustration level of the human figures.

M.C. Escher, Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

1960s and fame

In 1961 a book of his work was published and, as the decade of drugs and experiments with consciousness and mind-altering experiences unfolded, his work was taken up, turned into posters adorning a million student bedrooms, became part of pop culture. The commentary tells us that Mick Jagger contacted him, asking if he could design a gatefold cover for a Rolling Stones album, and Stanley Kubrick got in touch wondering if he’d be interested in collaborating on 2001 A Space Odyssey.

No, was the short answer. Escher’s methods, the painstaking creation of minutely-detailed woodcuts, lithographs, linotypes and engravings, took up a tremendous amount of time, and also he was a shy, private and meticulous man.

Favourites

Having walked back and forth through the exhibition three or four times, I found myself impressed but not ‘taken’ by the famous optical puzzle pictures. I also didn’t like the many images consisting just of patterns, whether abstract geometrical ones or ones made out of tessalations of lizards or frogs or seagulls.

If I had the money I would like to own two or three of his most figurative works. I absolutely loved Freighter, one of many prints he made from several months spent on a freighter steaming around the Mediterranean in 1936. I can’t find a copy of it large enough to do justice on the internet, but in the flesh it is large and bold and totally convincing. Its clarity of line reminded me of the beautiful draughtsmanship of the classic Tintin cartoons.

And, in the last room of the show, among more geometric trickery, was a cluster of prints showing that, right up to the end Escher retained an interest in purely figurative subject matter and a particular interest in water, including Rippled Surface, a lino cut from 1950, and Puddle. This said more to me than all the puzzles and perturbations. It is a northern landscape of mud and water, a wintry landscape. For some reason it reminds me of the line drawings in Tove Jansson’s moomintroll books. It has the hard black outlines of a good book illustration. For me it opens a doorway into a far more mysterious world than the neverending staircases, but a world Escher also knew and beautifully captures.

M.C. Escher,Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

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