UNTIL now the prospect of an Escher exhibition had seemed as unreal as his visionary creations
BUT have you seen a real one?” asks Patrick Elliott, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. We’re talking about MC Escher, the master of visual puzzles which play with perspective and dazzle with multiple dimensions. He created iconic images, instantly recognisable, ubiquitous on posters and in computer games, yet the truth is, few of us have ever seen a real one.
In fact, seeing a real Escher (an original print made by the artist himself) is surprisingly difficult. There are next to none in art galleries in the UK (a search turned up one, in the collection of the Hunterian in Glasgow, which arrived via the Geography Department). Those elsewhere in the world are rarely exhibited, due to conservation restrictions on work on paper. It was seeing an original Escher at an art fair in the Netherlands which piqued Elliott’s interest. “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’re showing Escher’s work, it’s that few people thought of showing him before.”
This summer, the National Galleries of Scotland will host the most significant Escher exhibition ever held in the UK, and the first in this country ever to show the artist’s original drawings as well as his prints. Mark Veldhuysen, proprietor of the MC Escher Company in the Netherlands, echoes the view of many Escher fans when he says: “I think it is wonderful that finally someone in the UK woke up and decided that there should be an Escher exhibition. I congratulate Patrick Elliott.”
Escher is an enigma: a reserved Dutchman who found himself the reluctant poster boy for the psychedelic generation; a master craftsman who turned down Mick Jagger and Stanley Kubrick in favour of continuing to make his own work quietly in his Netherlands home; an artist beloved of maths geeks and flower-power kids, yet all but ignored by art historians.
Part of the reason for this is that Escher, who died in 1972, does not belong within any art movement. “He’s not a cubist, he’s not a futurist, he’s not an abstract artist, he doesn’t fall into any of those groups that one studies, he’s just a one-off,” says Elliott. “He has a lot in common with the surrealists – he’s five months older than Magritte – but he didn’t have anything to do with any of them. He was not the kind of guy who was going to wear a long moustache and act it up for the cameras, or hang-out with other artists at the cafés in Paris. He’s a sort of anti-artist, a one man art movement.”
Maurits Cornelis Escher – known to family and friends as Mauk – was born in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands in 1898, the son of senior civil servant. He studied at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where his parents hoped he would become an architect, but, encouraged by an influential teacher, he decided to become a graphic artist. He experimented with various styles of the day, including cubism and art nouveau, establishing his modus operandi early on: immaculate hand-made prints.
He spent much of the next 13 years travelling in Europe, making prints of places he visited, particularly in Italy. He also met and married Jetta Umiker, daughter of a Swiss industrialist, with whom he had three sons. In 1935, the family settled back in the Netherlands, in Baarn, about 40km from Amsterdam, and Escher’s art changed: no longer producing landscapes, he began to work directly from his imagination, and what emerged was extraordinary. Even in his early works, Escher enjoyed unusual perspectives. Now, perspectives became multiple. Influenced by the patterns at the Alhambra in Spain, he experimented with tessellations, images which repeat within a pattern and gradually metamorphose. Printing his own woodcuts in his studio, he accomplished a level of detail and texture many print-makers could only dream about.
While not a mathematician himself, he was clearly interested by mathematics and used it to help create his complex puzzles. British mathematician Roger Penrose, fascinated by Escher’s early images of staircases, began a correspondence with the artist which in turn inspired the famous print Ascending And Descending, a continuous staircase which seems to go both up and down at the same time.
Escher always aimed for his work to have the quality of optical illusion about it: the drawing should be convincing in itself, and only on the second glance – the “Escherian double-take” – would reveal that it shows something impossible: water is flowing uphill, two hands are drawing one another. Receiving a major cultural prize in the Netherlands in 1965, he said: “My subjects are… often playful. I cannot help mocking all our unwavering certainties. It is, for example, great fun deliberately to confuse two or three dimensions, the plane and space, or to poke fun at gravity. Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase? Can you be definite that it is impossible to have your cake and eat it?”
Patrick Elliott says: “Escher’s work is a combination of completely bonkers imagination with control like you’ve never seen before in any other artist. But also, there’s consistency – there are 100 works in the show, but there could have been 200 at that quality. And he’s doing all kinds of different things. It’s easy to talk about the upside-down staircases, but there’s a lot more going on in his work.”
It was only in his fifties that Escher became sufficiently well-known to live comfortably from his art, and his attitude to fame was sanguine at best. “When he started getting famous, and people in America were commissioning more prints from him, he didn’t really like printing up old pictures, it took up his time and meant that he couldn’t do new work, so he kept pushing the prices up,” says Elliott. “But it only seemed to fuel the market more.”
It was in the 1960s that Escher’s work became world famous. His playful perspectives struck a chord with the youth culture, a connection about which he was always dubious. When Mick Jagger wrote to him to ask for permission to use a print as a album cover, he was politely turned down. Similarly, in 1965, Stanley Kubrick got a careful brush-off when he asked Escher to collaborate on a film (perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey). He didn’t know who Kubrick was.
However, his letters to his sons reveal a more complex picture: a man of great imagination, wonder and humour, who could delight in a pattern of sunlight and cloud, and enjoyed greatly the Tolkien-spoof novel Bored Of The Rings. “He seems quite a lonely figure in a way, but one gets the feeling that he quite liked that,” says Elliott. “I think he just wanted to sit down in his study and get on with his art.” n
• The Amazing World of MC Escher, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 27 September, www.nationalgalleries.org