Dulwich Picture Gallery unveils Maurits Cornelis Escher’s (1898-1972) curious and mind boggling illustrations, woodcuts and lithographs for this once in a lifetime exhibition. Escher mastered the technique to capture geometric shapes and extraordinary imagery onto stone and wood which sprouted in popular culture from films such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception to advertising and album covers such as the Mott The Hoople.
Escher’s creativity moved away from drawing still life and reality to defying it, pushing boundaries in his imaginary work and drawing self-contained aqueducts with endless water streams, for example. Observing his work requires a keen eye and the patience to try and decipher what Escher was trying to achieve in formulating his lithographs. (One may have to look at one corner of a piece before trying to comprehend the rest of it.)
When one thinks of Escher they are transported into another world of mirrored spheres, transforming shapes and animals, hard to follow staircases and distorted self-portraits. In the 1960s, the peak of Escher’s artistic career, students owned, at least, one poster of his design. He became so popular that Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones offered him the chance to design their album cover which he declined – Jagger addressed him in his first name which caused him much offence.
Often called a graphic illustrator, as much as an artist, Escher saw influences and intrigue from mathematical precision. His ability to grapple with timeless realities and unparallel dimensions had come to him through mathematical academics H.S.M Coxeter, with his work on crystal symmetry, and Sir Roger Penrose.
Waterfall (1961), conceived from a perspectival triangle of a viaduct with a backdrop of Southern Italy, and Ascending and Descending (1960), of monks continually climbing stairs without meaningful direction, were paramount components of Penrose’s work, creating structures that subverted the law of physics.
Travel was also an important part of Escher’s work. He travelled around Italy and resided in Rome for, no more than, ten years taking in the picturesque viewpoints and countryside which inspired his earlier artistic works. Yet, it is when he moved to Switzerland in 1935, and Belgium later on, that he began spending more time concentrating on illusions and imaginary pieces, compared to his earlier pieces entirely dedicated to natural phenomena.
It was then that his concept of eternity in art took a hold of his artistic endeavours shown through his well-known lithograph Drawing Hands (1948). The onset of his first illusory piece Still Life with Mirror (1934), which toys with the mind, portrays the reflection of a street through a tilted mirror, but everything isn’t as reflected as it should. Many have compared this lithographic work to surrealist René Magritte who was a great admirer of his work.
His multiple visits to the fourteenth century palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain in 1936 was also most influential. He became fascinated by tiled walls of tessellated mosaics which gave him the impetus to create a four-meter long woodcut design, Metamorphosis II (1940) which was completed in a year. It is an intelligent pattern following fish turning into birds, larvae growing into bees that morph into beehives and then cheese boards turning into cheese board pieces. Escher elaborated these tessellation patterns playing with two-dimensional and three dimension drawings of reptiles and snakes.
100 paradoxical and illusory pieces by the Dutch artist are displayed in six separate rooms which may sound like a tight squeeze yet most of the work, brought together from the Gemeentemuseum Den Hagg in the Netherlands and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (where the exhibition first ran), showcases a rare retrospective that many should, and probably do, want to see.