Impossible Objects – MC Escher


In 1970 the influential California art critic Thomas Albright wrote in Rolling Stone magazine  that Maurits Cornelis Escher, then 71, had “finally arrived”.    MC Escher’s work had featured in the Whole Earth Catalogue (favoured by the counterculture for its psychedelic qualities)  in several US museums and “will easily be found in any of the standard anthologies of modern artists.”  More to the point it “looks like nothing or nobody else around”.

Forty-five years later MC Escher has finally arrived, again – at least in Britain.   His work is instantly familiar from calendars, or posters,  on bedroom doors or classroom walls.       But the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s show this summer lays claim to a ‘reassessment’ in the UK, where art historians took a sniffy attitude from the first.

The Amazing World of MC Escher has been open for a month now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and on a recent return visit was pulling a stream of visitors.  Staff say it’s one of Modern Two’s strongest openings yet.    It’s garnered plenty of favourable publicity: he Guardian in particular carried an excellent piece on Escher.

This show, with over 100 works including original drawings, prints, woodcuts and lithographs, all lent by the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, has all the favourites, alongside the lesser-known  – but at their original size, not telescoped into A4 for a book.  Some panoramic pieces run right along end walls.

Cycle, by MC Escher

Cycle, by MC Escher

There’s a lingering hint of trepidation in the way the show has been presented; a whiff of academic cringe.     As if the National Galleries of Scotland knew full well they would pull international festival crowds, but with a wary eye out to dodge the critical axe.  To coin a phrase:  Escher is popular, but is he art?

The ‘directors’ foreword’ in the show’s catalogue, signed by NGS director Sir John Leighton and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Simon Groom, plots a careful line.  It bills Escher as a direct contemporary of the surrealists Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, and boosts him as a “one-man art movement”,  the creator of “some of the most memorable and imaginative images in 20th Century art”.

But it also carefully notes that there’s no record of his communicating or even commenting on the surrealists; and that his work has tended to appear in science journals or popular “lifestyle” magazines rather the arts press.   The essay records the ‘muted reception’ and frankly ‘negative perception’  of Escher in Britain’s museum world.  The one known piece in any British public collection – Day and Night – is in the Hunterian in Glasgow.   It was bought – heaven forbid –  by Glasgow University’s Geography Department.

“It’s easy to be snobby, and it’s common,” says Patrick Elliott, the  senior curator who initiated the exhibition and has written the catalogue essay on Escher and Britain. “So far, in Britain, he is not viewed as a serious artist…It’s partly because he is a graphic artist, in the world of comics or whatever, and partly because he is so involved with mathematicians. You will find his work more in maths books than you would in art history books.”

Drawing Hands, from 1948, of two hands drawing each other, is one of Escher’s most famous works.  But the Study for Drawing Hands, an original drawing in the show, seems one of the most gifted pieces: the finesse of the soft veins and shiny knuckles, the folds of skin, is simply phenomenal.  The study for Eye, from 1946, with a skull reflected in the pupil, is equally fine.

Escher combined an appreciation of landscape and interiors with enormously complex distortions of scale, perspective and visual logic which he held in his mind and delivered to the page with extraordinary detail and finesse. There is no room for error in these etchings, no playing about with paint.

Belvedere, one of his most perennially popular works, is not simply clever; it has character,  in the mix of medieval figures, one borrowed direction from Hironymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  There’s a story to tell, of a woman being invited into this outpost overlooking a long valley, the snow-capped peaks in the distance.

In 1931 Salvador Dali painted his melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory.  Six years later, Escher produced Still Life and Street.   It is one of the most satisfying in the SNGMA show, and perhaps the most clearly surrealist.

In this woodcut (the exhibition did not provide an image, but it’s widely viewable on the web), Escher takes us seamlessly from the table-top foreground objects of a pipe in a bowl, a deck of cards, a container with conical lid, to two sets of books as large of the buildings of a street.  The “visual pitfall” forces a second look; in the the impossible but subtle shifts in scale, Escher plays the trompe l’oeil utterly straight, with no canned gimmickry.

Vastly more simple are examples like the the pretty shadowed softness of Phosphorescent Sea, or the glowing umbrella of  light inFireworks, both from 1933.

Phosphorescent Sea, MC Escher, 1933

Phosphorescent Sea, MC Escher, 1933

Born in a small provincial city in the Netherlands, Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) studied at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem.   His father wanted him to be an architect, but the graphic arts teacher, Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita,  convinced his parents that Escher should pursue his studies in that department.    He would marry the daughter of a Swiss industrialist, Jetta Umiker, and was the father of two sons.

A 1923 woodcut self-portrait of Escher, the year he married,  meets visitors in the entrance of the exhibition.  From the side as you approach, the dark lines telescoped together,  the face first appears intense and a little mad; but from the front, it is much milder and more reflective.   A second self portrait inside, from 1935,  inside the door of the right hand gallery, shows Escher reflected in a glass sphere, sitting in his library.   It presents the artist as exactly how he sounds – fusty, frowning, and a little cross.

MC Escher self-portrait

MC Escher self-portrait

Biographers stress that Escher took an orderly, structured approach to his work and life.    Indeed, he suffered early from the perception that he did not possess enough of an artistic temperament. At Haarlem his teachers worried that he was “not enough of a young man with moods and caprices, not enough of…an artist”.   He was a man of routine, who took a daily walk in the afternoons; he had a good relationship with his father, who supported him financially early in his career; and he simply became irritated with visitors who demanded to know the deeper meaning of his work.

Escher, judging from what’s seen here, largely skirts the artist’s staples of sex, madness and death, as he eschewed celebrity.   Dali of course revelled in all these, from his circus mustachios to works like In Voluptas Mars, where he used seven nude women to produce the image of a skull.

Escher’s woodcut portrait of his wife, Jetta,  mournfully contemplating a daffodil, is one of the most moving in the exhibition.   The nose and lips are beautifully finished and he has constructed a kind of halo around her.   His portrait of his elderly father, seems cosy and affectionate.

Escher is hard to place artistically.   “He’s not a cubist, he’s not allied to any of those art history movements, so you don’t study him in art classes,” said Elliott. “He is still fashionable, I’m sure the number of Escher ties and Escher mugs which sell is enormous, you just don’t see them in museums.”

So is Bridget Riley, for example, an artist, if Escher is not?   It seems a little hard – her best-known work, as the Tate’s biography observes, evolved to explore “the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena” in so-called “Op-Art” pieces that “produce a disorienting physical effect on the eye”.   Riley worked in colour, on canvas, of course; Escher made no oil paintings, worked in black and white etching and wood cut.

There might be  comparisons between Escher’s work and the mathematical approach of the Scottish architect (and more occasional artist) Charles Jencks, with his landforms and his Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack.

Escher, the catalogue foreword notes, “had a meticulously ordered mind and led a meticulously ordered life.”  His life has an orderly, respectable, middle European quality: he  took modest holidays and travelled second and third class even when he was well off.   He didn’t like to be interrupted; most famously, as his popularity peaked in the ’60s, when Mick Jagger wrote to him as “Dear Maurits”, asking him to design an album cover, he replied “Who is this Jagger person?”

The only hint of trauma appears in his schooldays, which he remembered as utterly miserable,  and the staircase at his school in “the hell that was Arnhem” seems inspired staircases in his images.

The biographies leave a great deal of guess work on how Escher responded to the war; perhaps like some artists he reacted by retreating into himself.  His father died in 1939,  and his mother in 1940. Verbum was produced in 1942; in it, frogs merge to fishes and doves in tessellated form while a cloudy murk spreads across the centre of the piece.    In Reptiles, from 1943,  fire-breathing toothy reptiles spread and writhe across book and paper.

His former teacher, de Mesquita, so pivotal in shaping his career, was Jewish.  Escher continued to visit him during the Occupation in Amsterdam, before the family was taken away by the Nazis in 1944; the artist , and organised an exhibition in his murdered teacher’s honour when the conflict was over.

The work chosen by those Glasgow geographers, Day and Night, is one of the most interesting.  Dating from 1938, it is billed as an ‘iconic representation of the Dutch landscape’ but a shadow is spreading in those pre-war days, along with the black and white birds, across the checquered fields, windmills and water.

Day and Night, by MC Escher

Day and Night, by MC Escher