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The metamorphoses of MC Escher

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MC Escher’s mind-bending prints made him popular with the likes of Mick Jagger, but he was snubbed by the art establishment. Rakesh Ramchurn visits the Dutch artist’s first UK retrospective

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) is instantly recognisable through his work. His startling images of impossible waterfalls, interlocking animals and endless staircases have a mix of popular appeal and thought-provoking absurdity which, towards the end of his career, brought Escher mainstream success. His work is regularly revisited in the worlds of art, advertising, film and video games, and remains a staple of undergrad bedroom walls to this day.

Yet Escher was never taken that seriously by the art establishment. Only one of his prints can be found in a British public collection, and this show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (following a run at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is the first major UK retrospective of Escher’s work. It brings together more than 100 works by the Dutch artist and presents them in strict chronological order, allowing visitors to see the artist’s progression over a 40-year career.

MC Escher Relativity 1953

Escher attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem in the Netherlands from 1919 to 1922. He originally set out to be an architect, but within weeks his talent as a draughtsman was noticed and he transferred to the graphic arts department. However, architecture remained an important focus of his work; many of his visual effects depend on subverting the sense of place, with relatively little importance given to central subjects.

His early work shows an artist experimenting with different styles. Portraits completed in 1920 alternate between Art Nouveau and Cubist styles, while a woodcut from this period shows Japanese influence in its use of layering.

But it was when he travelled to Italy in 1922 that Escher truly began to develop his own style. He married and settled in Rome, but travelled extensively, and the country’s mountainous terrain stimulated Escher’s imagination. He marvelled at the extreme views that Italy’s steep hilltop towns provided, and the exhibition includes several prints from this period depicting these mountain villages with ever more exaggerated perspectives.

Escher replaced the mundane cityscapes of his homeland with absurd and surreal worlds

If moving to Italy was a key moment in Escher’s career, leaving with his family in 1935 (he had grown uncomfortable with the rise of Fascism) proved to be even more cathartic. He moved first to Switzerland then Belgium, before settling in the city of Baarn just outside Amsterdam. Confronted with the flat terrain of northern Europe, Escher retreated into his imagination, replacing the mundane cityscapes of his homeland with absurd and surreal worlds.

A key technique he used was tessellation. Study of Islamic geometric patterning during a trip to the Alhambra in Granada alerted Escher to the technique’s potential, and it soon became a major feature of his work.

However, Escher preferred to tessellate figurative rather than geometric forms, and regularly played with interlocking fish, reptiles, birds and people. He did this most famously with Day and Night (1938), which depicts a flock of white birds flying headlong into a flock of black birds, alternating in chessboard fashion while also merging into the chequered landscape of fields below.

MC Escher Day and Night 1938

Architecture also remained a strong influence. A staircase at the secondary school Escher attended in Arnhem – which was stepped on both its upper and lower sides – recurs in a number of prints, most notably in Relativity (1953), which features contradictory stairways leading figures in all sorts of gravity-defying directions.

Perhaps in sympathy with architects who have to visualise their designs for built structures on the flat page, Escher began to explore the absurdity and limitations of depicting three-dimensional objects through a two-dimensional medium. For example, Reptiles (1943) depicts a desk with a drawing of a tessellated pattern of lizards. Through the use of shading and detailing to make some of the lizards appear three-dimensional, these animals ‘come to life’ and move in a circuit across the desk, before falling back into two dimensions as they return to the page.

MC Escher Reptiles 1943

Escher was a highly syncretic artist, absorbing ideas from a variety of disciplines. One of the highlights of the exhibition is some of the original correspondence between the artist and two mathematicians, Harold Coxeter and Roger Penrose, which provides the background to some of Escher’s most enduring works.  

Both had visited an exhibition of Escher’s work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1954, and like many mathematicians, were attracted to the explorations of infinity and logic found in his work. Coxeter sent Escher an article on the geometry of crystals, who responded with the Circle Limit (I-IV) series (1958–60). Escher had trouble depicting the receding nature of interlocking shapes, and it was Coxeter who informed him of the geometric rules he needed to follow, as well as advising him to use colour.

MC Escher Waterfall 1961

Penrose worked with his father to create some ‘problem pictures’ of their own. These appeared in the British Journal of Psychology and were spotted by one of Escher’s friends who sent a copy to the artist, resulting in two of Escher’s most famous works. Penrose’s model of a circular flight of stairs with no beginning or end inspired Ascending and Descending (1960), while Waterfall (1961) is based on Penrose’s ‘tribar’, an impossible triangle which reveals its illogicality when imagined as a three-dimensional structure.

He refused a fawning letter from Mick Jagger who wanted an original album cover

This was the high point of Escher’s career. While the 1950s had seen the artist’s fame spread through Europe and America, the 1960s saw his work embraced not just by mathematicians but by the world of Pop culture – the hippie movement fell in love with the ‘mind-bending’ qualities of his work. But Escher was a private man who often seemed to find his success an annoyance. He turned down an offer to work with director Stanley Kubrick to develop a ‘fourth-dimensional film’ (presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey), and he refused a fawning letter from Mick Jagger who wanted an original artwork for an album cover. It’s thought that the artist had no idea who the Rolling Stones were, while Jagger had made the mistake of addressing the very formal Escher by his first name.

Visitors to the exhibition will notice a clear progression in Escher’s work, which becomes steadily more surreal and experimental. They will also get a sense of why many refused to take Escher seriously for so long. While most artworks require you to suspend reality and believe in the image, Escher steeped his works in irony, showing up the inherent absurdity of the medium while still managing to amuse, baffle and amaze. He played games with perspectives, used multiple vanishing points and flipped between dimensions – all of which highlighted the fact that the image could not be trusted.

Escher put this into words himself in reference to one of his early woodcuts: ‘In our three-dimensional space the two-dimensional is every bit as fictitious as the four-dimensional. Curiously enough, we still go on, as we have done since time immemorial, producing illusions of space on just such plain surfaces as those. Surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim “This is a house”?’

It’s no wonder the art world had trouble accepting him.

MC Escher Circle Limit III 1959

Exhibition: The Amazing World of MC Escher

When until 17 January 2016, open Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
Price Adult ticket £14
Where Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 7AD

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