The Amazing World of MC Escher
The UK’s first major retrospective of the Dutch artist and designer who influenced Stanley Kubrick, The Rolling Stones and The Simpsons opens in Edinburgh
This article is from 2015.
To say that the work of the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher is ‘undiscovered’ is anything but correct. Yet that this is the first major retrospective of his work to be shown in the UK exposes the ring of truth to such a description. Escher, of course, is one of the most familiar artists of the 20th century to a layperson audience, but his standing in the contemporary art world doesn’t mirror that of, say, Picasso or Dali, fellow subjects of mass market hardback collections of their work available in mainstream stores.
Like Dali in particular, Escher created works that were accessible but mind-bending. They made him a visual icon to the 1960s counterculture, with his use of perspective, illusion and a sense of altered gravity influencing Stanley Kubrick’s visuals on 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. The Rolling Stones unsuccessfully tried to commission an album cover, although the exhibition does include examples of Escher’s work on the covers of albums by Mott the Hoople and The Scaffold (Mike ‘brother of Paul’ McCartney’s band). Long after his death in 1972, his work’s mesmerising sense of logical confusion – Escher was fascinated by mathematics – found its way into visual tributes by way of everything from the David Bowie film classic Labyrinth to The Simpsons and Doctor Who.
Senior curator Patrick Elliott’s decision to make Escher the subject of a major summer exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is both a canny commercial one, and a choice which bears little risk of repeating what has been shown and said many times elsewhere. The show first details the first half of Escher's life, when he trained as an architect and then worked as a graphic artist in relative obscurity until the mid-1930s, developing fascinations with the process of woodcut printing, the distinctive visual design of the Arabic tiling used in the Alhambra in Spain, and of rendering images of buildings, mostly inspired by his time living in Italy.
Returning to northern Europe in 1933, first to Switzerland, then Belgium, then back to Nazi-occupied Holland, Escher began to create some of his more famous pieces, geometric riddles which combined clean monochrome, hallucinatory images and a liking for puzzles of perspective and repeated patterns. In ‘Still Life and Street’, for example, his wooden desk merges with the street below, while ‘Metamorphosis I and II’, ‘Cycle’ and ‘Day and Night’ blend images together by bleeding a motif from one into another; for example that of a flying bird in the latter image.
Although only one Escher is known to reside in a public collection in the UK (in Glasgow), the fact that he created many prints of each means that all of the major works have been sourced, including the baffling staircase arrangement ‘Up and Down’; the much-copied maze of logic-defying stairs ‘Relativity’; and the orange peel-like band of connected features in ‘Bond of Union’, a portrait of he and his wife Jetta. In person, and with some preparatory sketches also on show, the intricacy and detail of these delicately shaded, almost photorealistic works becomes as vivid as the singular visions they portray.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), Edinburgh, until Sun 27 Sep.