M.C. Escher seems as puzzling as his art. He had friends, but only an early teacher was, apparently, a fellow artist. He didn't have an art dealer. He expressed little or no interest in the art movements swirling around him during the early 20th century when he was coming of age and into his career. He paid little attention to any art from the Renaissance forward.
Mostly a printmaker, he didn't follow the conventional path of collaborating with an atelier and master printer, doing the work himself most of the time. He preferred the company of mathematicians and scientists — and his own complex mind — eventually driving his wife to depression and, finally, flight.
Perhaps all of those traits help explain why Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) only gained recognition and fame in the 1950s as he approached old age. They also help explain his singular gift for transforming esoteric mathematical ideas into beautiful, brainy figurative manifestations.
"Escher at the Dalí" is a richly informative exhibition that presents 135 works, mostly prints, that provide a narrative of his evolution. I have seen the show twice and both times left feeling stimulated and befuddled (in an interesting way) by the tricks his art plays with our perception.
He was born into an affluent, well-educated family in the Netherlands but had no aptitude for conventional school. His parents supported his decision to study art, and he became especially interested in the woodcut process of printmaking, though he also used the lithography technique.
In 1922 he traveled to Italy, which he had visited with his family as a child. He stayed until 1935 when he felt forced to leave because of the fascist climate. It was the happiest time in Escher's life, when he fell in love, had two children and created almost half of his entire output.
Some of his early work can be described as having surrealist or perhaps dream and nightmarish elements through his dramatic contrasts of light and dark and the fantastical creatures that occupy the landscapes. Despite imaginative flourishes, his work is based on observation. He chronicles the rolling landscapes of his beloved southern Italy and the tumble of plaster and tile homes perched on its hills.
Denied Italian inspiration and hating his new home in Switzerland probably contributed to his introversion as an artist. Still Life and Street, 1937, is considered his first departure from observation in creating what is called "an impossible reality." Books are placed on a table in the foreground overlooking, at a glance, a window view of a street scene. But no. The table extends through the window to become the street itself and the huge books lean against and cover two-story walls.
Longing to escape Northern Europe, he traded prints for passage on Mediterranean cargo ships for him and his wife. The voyage brought a life-changing inspiration during a visit to the Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. He had first seen and been impressed by it in 1922 but this time, he became obsessed with its intricately patterned tiles. They became the inspiration for Escher's work using tesselation, repetitive patterns that interlock but don't overlap. Escher combined the usual geometric shapes with figurative ones.
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Day and Night was the first example created after his Alhambra visit. The 1938 woodcut is a double landscape, both identical but one seen in daylight, one at night. The viewer's perspective is the same one as two flocks of birds, white ones flying over the dark landscape, the black ones over the bright landscape. The composition becomes something more as we study it. In the center, where the farmland is platted into square fields, we notice them becoming more irregular from south to north, morphing into shapes that eventually become simple bird shapes and then fully realized ones. Look again: The center core of birds that appear to be only white ones on a black background are reverse images of that background, which are actually more black birds. It's an illusion in which we can never see both patterns at once. We know they're coming when we look at other examples by Escher, but we still can't win his game.
Metamorphosis (1939-40) is considered his masterpiece of tesselation, done with three separate, seamlessly joined prints running almost 13 feet across a gallery wall. It's considered his "mosaic" masterpiece that begins with the title word in black and white that Escher repeats in loose grids that become rigid squares, lizards, six-sided shapes, bees, fish birds, a village, chess board and back to squares, grids, ending with the same word. We get lost in studying the progression of unrelated elements and double images.
He also uses those village buildings he loved to document in his early years in a different form of optical illusion that plays in an increasingly sophisticated way with impossible reality. Relativity, 1953, one of his most "quoted" images in popular culture and movies, sets up an interior scene with three perspectives defined by stairs that go up leading to window views of a first floor courtyard, down for views of an elevated scene — and some lead nowhere. Don't even try to figure it out; it defies cranial logic.
By this time, the obscure artist had become famous, profiled in magazines such as Time and Life and invited to speak at prestigious scientific conferences. He was given museum exhibitions and commissions that included a cookie tin he designed as a 20-sided container using interlocking starfish and shells. His sons were adults with their own lives and his wife had left him, unable to break through his obsessive work habits. Cancer and surgeries slowed him down. Snakes, 1967, was his final work, an exploration of interest in the infinity of repeating shapes, done with three snakes weaving through a circle of connecting smaller circles that expand from the center and decrease at the outer edge. I marveled at the intricacy of its detail, all carved from a block of wood, that rivals anything that would be done with more ease and speed on a computer today.
He would likely dismiss such technology. It's another paradox of Escher, the old-school artist who was ahead of his time and, in some ways, remains so today.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.