M.C. Escher is an artist whose work is as instantly recognisable, yet his name means 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 focused 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. A new exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland will host the UK’s first ever major retrospective of his body of work.
Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), more commonly known as M.C. Escher is an artist of astonishing ingenuity and originality, a one-man art movement who created some of the most famous and popular images in modern art whilst operating quietly at the fringes of the art world. Escher created fascinating and often impossible worlds, such as staircases with no beginning or end (Ascending and Descending, 1960), landscapes with illusory dual perspectives (Still Life and Street, 1937) and scenes where both two-and three-dimensional planes seamlessly meld into each other (Reptiles, 1943).
Over 100 works, including original drawings, prints, mezzotints, woodcuts and lithographs, will go on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, having been lent by the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague in Escher’s country of birth, The Netherlands.
Escher was not affiliated with the Surrealists, but his work has much in common with Magritte and Dalí; all three created fantastic worlds in eye-fooling detail, making the impossible look believable; all three were fastidious about technique, became immensely popular in the 1960s and produced iconic artworks. Yet the Dutchman – having opted for a life of calm and privacy – had nothing to do with either artist or the Surrealist group. His work brought him considerable fame, though unlike Dalí, the reserved Dutch artist lamented his celebrity status, even raising his prices in an unsuccessful effort to dampen sales, since re-printing earlier works meant diverting his attention from new work. He reluctantly accepted a knighthood from the Dutch Crown but refused to wear the medal and famously turned down a plea from Mick Jagger to design a Rolling Stones album cover.
Despite his ingenuity and continuing popularity – an Escher exhibition held in Rio de Janeiro in 2011 was the most popular art show in the world that year – there seems to be only one Escher print in a British public collection.
Throughout the decades Escher’s work has become truly ubiquitous, pervading popular culture in a way few other artists have achieved. His images have appeared on album covers (Mott The Hoople), his concepts in films both classic (Labyrinth) and contemporary (Inception), and countless homages to the artist have surfaced on television (The Simpsons, Family Guy) and in video games (Lemmings).
Yet while familiar from reproductions, a British audience rarely has the opportunity to view Escher originals ‘in the flesh’. The exhibition, which has been realised thanks to the generosity of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, offers an unprecedented opportunity to rediscover a giant of twentieth-century art, juxtaposing some of his most-celebrated prints with his lesser known lithographs and woodcuts. Escher flourished under the mentorship of artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. With their bold lines and striking contrast of black and white, in Escher’s early monochromatic woodcuts White Cat (1919) and Portrait of a Man (1920) can be seen his mentor’s creative influence.
Travel also proved important, with impactful visits to Italy and Spain, particularly the Alhambra in Granada, where Escher became enraptured by the Moorish fortress’ tiled walls of tessellated mosaics. The artist would go on to master this difficult and intricate form, with most of his work revealing a strong yet seemingly-intuitive understanding of mathematics and geometry.
This is no more evident than in Metamorphosis II (1939). Nearly four metres in length, this highly imaginative woodcut has tessellations both simple and complex effortlessly merging into each other; from fish to birds; from hives to bees; from simple blocks to stretching panoramas which then morph into chess pieces. Itself an enormous and cyclical tessellation, Metamorphosis II is a masterpiece of graphic know-how and artistic dexterity.
While there is little correspondence with other notable artists, Escher often communicated with – and absorbed much from – academics, most notably British-born geometer H.S.M. Coxeter (1907-2003) and mathematician Sir Roger Penrose (b. 1931).
After a fortuitous series of events at the International Congress of Mathematics held in Amsterdam in September 1954, both Coxeter and Penrose were quick to grasp the complexities and originality of the artist’s work.
Coexter played a small part in the artist’s series of Circle Limits, a sequence of works which are clear evidence of Escher’s stunning intuitive grasp of symmetry, geometry and complex mathematical principles.
Astonished by House of Stairs (1951) and Relativity (1953), through correspondence Penrose went onto become hugely influential in the creation of two of Escher’s most celebrated works, Ascending and Descending (1960) – which depicts figures locked in a staircase without start or end – and Waterfall (1961), where Penrose’s “impossible triangle” was thrice-slotted into the picture to create a flowing yet physics-defying water structure.
Exploring a unique artist whose imagery has become part of our common visual language, The Amazing World of M.C. Escher will also feature a selection of Escher archive material, including preparatory sketches, the tools the artist used and documents showing the influence of Coexter and Penrose.
Patrick Elliott, Senior Curator of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, said: “There are two qualities an artist needs to become a great artist: imagination and technique, and Escher had both in spades. There aren’t many artists whose work makes your jaw drop, but he’s one of them. The odd thing isn’t that we are showing Escher’s work, it’s that few people thought of showing him before”.
Benno Tempel, Director of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, said: “The beautiful thing with Escher is that people of all ages – from children to grownups – immediately appreciate his work. For many people he is their first acquaintance with art.”
After at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the exhibition will travel to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
Image Detail: M.C. Escher, Hand wtih Reflecting Sphere,1935. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company – Baarn, The Netherlands. All rights reserved.