This winter’s blockbuster exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a retrospective of the work of the visionary Dutch graphic artist MC Escher. And blockbuster it is; the first comprehensive showing of Escher’s back catalogue in the UK, the curators have gathered together more than 100 prints and left no stone – or woodcut – untouched.
It’s all there; the mindboggling, geometric prints you know from postcards and popular culture, and those that are new but seem familiar anyway, such was Escher’s distinctive style. He was a mathematician in an artist’s body – or was it the other way round? – and there are countless examples of his experimentation with symmetrical patterns and his tessellations, inspired by his wanderings round the Alhambra palace.
There’s his whimsical print of self-drawing hands, or the lithograph ‘House of Stairs’, with those famous staircases that run up and down and into themselves, and his fascinating, playful ‘Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror’, depicting the artist as a stern figure trapped in the glass, drawing the very scene we see before us. There’s ‘Bond of Union’, a portrait of his wife Jetta and himself floating in space, their faces as one connected and unfolding strand and their insides as clear as their exteriors. It’s a strangely poignant image, sullied only by the discovery that their marriage was not to last.
The exhibition spans Escher’s career from the 1920s to the 1960s, covering periods when his work bore traces of cubism and surrealism. And although he developed as an artist over that time, he was remarkably consistent in his interests. From the get go, he sought to communicate the natural symmetries of the world – the orderly nature of a cliff-top town, the way light fell just so on a building – and by the same measure to counter them. Equally, he was preoccupied with reflected reality and had an unerring ability to challenge perceptions. Looking at any one of the prints in the exhibition, you are struck by the presentation of a world just slightly off kilter. Something is always that little bit too large or too small.
Not that all his work was complicated. Some of his most startling images are the simplest; the clever use of contrast in a print of a dolphin from 1923, produced after a boat trip where he observed what he called porpoises, or his remarkable portrayal of spectators watching fireworks. For the latter, Escher blackened the whole of a lithographic stone, then scratched out the lines to replicate the luminescent white of the exploding firework.
What Escher remains most celebrated for, however, is his examination of repetition, and how shapes could be reformed into something entirely new. His lifelong desire was to find a satisfactory expression of the concept of infinity, and indeed, things rarely begin in Escher’s work, they merely continue in a fluid motion. In ‘Day and Night’, a print from 1938, the flat structures of the Dutch landscape blend gently into the appearance of birds taking flight, and the scene is both of dusk and of dawn. In another, a town morphs into a series of shapes before becoming a floating paper doll.
His woodcut ‘Metamorphosis II’ – completed over two years and spanning four metres – is most astonishing; long lines become shapes become lizards and flies and flowers and fish and birds and then, suddenly, a deftly rendered Italian town. Then this melts into a chess board and finally returns to the words and lines that started everything. It’s mesmerising to look at; the transitions almost impossible to detect.
It’s telling, given his forensic attention to detail and his clear enchantment with form and perspective, to learn that he originally planned to be an architect. You can’t help but wish he had been given licence to design a town; the result would’ve been like something out of Alice In Wonderland.
His work is hypnotic, maddening, and fun. What does that turn into? How did he get from that to that? Can you make out that shape there? And it is absolutely perfect for children. You can well see why Escher was embraced in equal measure by the mathematical and hippy communities; his work was the meeting point between logic and absurdity. I couldn’t help but wonder, what would Escher have done if he’d had a computer graphics programme to play with, when he was so forward-thinking as a printmaker?
My only gripe was that there was a little too much on display; not just his prints, but dozens of original sketches too. More isn’t always more, especially when it comes to an artist so fixated on recurrence and working in monochrome. By the end, it almost felt like the gallery was one of his never-ending staircases.
But it’s a small price to pay for such a thought-provoking exhibition. You may have to pick and choose the best bits, but there are plenty of contenders.
‘The Amazing World of MC Escher’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 17 January 2016.
Adult £14; Senior Citizens £13; Concessions £7.60; tickets are for timed entry