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M.C. Escher: Impossible Possibilities

The eye-popping, mind-bending art of M.C. Escher goes on display in Brooklyn.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, lithograph.

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On June 8, the largest exhibition of the work of Dutch 20th-century printmaker M.C. Escher ever mounted in the U.S. will open—not in a museum but in a huge converted warehouse on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront called Industry City. Over 200 works will be on view, in an exhibition curated by Mark Veldhuysen, longtime curator of the M.C. Escher Foundation Collection, and Federico Giudiceandrea, an Italian tech executive and one of the world’s top Escher collectors and experts. The show, titled “Escher: The Exhibition and Experience” (through February 13, 2019), is produced and organized by Arthemisia, an Italian company that has staged some 500 exhibitions since 2000.

An unconventional venue is fitting for an Escher show, since Escher himself never really fit into the mainstream art world during his lifetime (1898–1972). He didn’t have a retrospective until he was 70, and throughout his career he pursued his own aims and developed his own technique without particular regard for the directions the rest of the art world was taking. Nonetheless, some of his preoccupations—mathematics, visual paradox, distortions of space, and enigmas—were not at all alien to the modernist avant-garde, although his style of work—rigorously precise and polished printmaking with an Old Master feel—definitely was. In any case, Escher’s work has continued to delight the mind and eye of viewers around the world, including many who have no knowledge of modern art. Escher’s work has this universal appeal because it brings fundamental philosophical concepts to vivid life.

The son of a well-known civil engineer, Maurits Cornelis Escher studied decorative arts and printmaking with the Dutch Sephardic Jewish artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, a proponent of Art Nouveau. In 1922 Escher visited Italy, which greatly impressed him; he ending up staying there from 1923 to 1935, only leaving after the increasing harshness of the Mussolini regime made it unbearable for him to remain. The woodcuts Escher made in Italy are more naturalistic than the brain-teasing, mathematically-driven images he is most famous for, but there is a certain commonality between the bodies of work. His views of the Italian hill towns are vertiginous, the convoluted spaces handled in such a way as to make them look almost like physical impossibilities.

It was Spain rather than Italy that set Escher off in the direction of the really impossible impossibilities. In 1936, the tiles on Moorish buildings such as the Alhambra in Granada and La Mezquita in Cordoba got him thinking about tessellation, in which interlocking, asymmetrical geometrical elements are endlessly repeated to fill up a space without any gaps or overlaps. Escher’s absorption with this phenomenon reached the point of obsession; he wrote of being actually unable to tear himself away from working on it. One of the seven themed sections of the New York show is devoted to tessellation and the revolution it produced in Escher’s work. Usually, Escher engages in illusionistic tessellation, in which the shapes gradually transform into other shapes as they work their way across the composition. For example, in Regular Division of the Plane, a woodcut printed in red ink, a basic checkerboard pattern eventually becomes a pattern of interlacing birds and then flying fish. In Day and Night, the checkerboard pattern of farmers’ fields as seen from the air similarly morphs into two flocks of birds, one black, one white. Metamorphosis, a very long panoramic, multicolored woodcut, takes the concept to its ultimate development, joining together multiple spaces and even genres of art under the rubric of tessellation.

The illusions for which Escher is best known involve manipulations of space, or rather our perception of space, that make our eyes believe that something is real while our intellect, simultaneously, is telling us that it cannot be. In Relativity, notions of up and down and side to side are subverted in a gravity-defying way. The image, which is square, is equally valid no matter how it is oriented. In Belvedere, the perspective of the building depicted is off, such that two structures that are apparently at right angles to each other nonetheless line up as if they were parallel. As in many of Escher’s works, fantasy architecture is the backbone of the composition, and the buildings and the little figures that inhabit them suggest an Italian Renaissance of the imagination, a dream-world based on the Italian scenes that Escher imprinted during the time he spent living there.

One of Escher’s most indelible images is the lithograph Drawing Hands. Here we have a restatement of the chicken-and-egg paradox, with each hand drawing the other into existence, going from mere outline into fully-shaded illusionistic three-dimensionality. Whether one thinks of it as a meditation on creativity or as a sort of optical Zen koan, once seen, this work is hard to forget. In works based on reflections, Escher found distortions of space ready-made, in the way polished curved or spherical surfaces render an image. Hand with Reflecting Sphere is an eloquent self-portrait in which the artist’s hand is the only part of his body that is directly seen; his face and torso, as well as the room he occupies, are all magically encompassed, by way of reflection, in the metallic globe the hand is holding.

In keeping with the populist appeal of Escher, the “Experience” part of the exhibition provides play areas, scientific experiments and interactive, walk-in environments that are intended to help visitors understand and more fully experience the artworks. “Immersive photo booths” will allow visitors to place themselves inside some of Escher’s scenes, and a “relativity room” will confound normal ideas of size and scale. There will also be a section devoted to work that Escher did on commission for clients, such as bookplate designs and visiting cards, and one called “Eschermania” for works created by others—including comic books, advertising images, and record sleeves—that were directly inspired by Escher.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2018

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