MC Escher

“Infinite Universes” Exhibition M.C. Escher

Science Park, and the Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain, July 2011.

Subject matter is an issue that arises frequently: what to draw/paint/engrave/ print. The choice of the “wrong” subject matter leads to accusations of tweeness or cliché, unless done by the “right” person, in which case it’s ok, even ironic.

Escher’s linocuts, woodcuts and lithographs started out exploring figurative representation, or at least that is how this exhibition portrayed his work in a thematic development from representation to the solving of complex mathematical problems, from the concrete to the highly abstract (in cognitive, not artistic terms).  

Mythical themes, landscapes and religious subjects dominated the first stage of woodcuts, showing the use of flatness as in medieval frescos (St Francis preaching to the birds, 1922) and fine line work, some of which recalls Durer (Hand with fir cone, 1921), as well as experimentation with different texturing techniques in wood (Dolphins, 1923, which has a fine speckled textured that looks more like a lithograph in parts: Portrait of G.Escher-Umiker, 1925, carved entirely in vertical lines of differing thicknesses and lengths.)

The next stage, according to the exhibition, was the representation of landscapes, real Mediterranean ones from Italy and Corsica, or mythical ones, showing sharp architectural and dramatic perspectives and textures of natural forms. The woodcuts from the 1920s show a huge variety of marks to represent textures of tiles, stones, bricks and to utilise dramatic chiaroscuro effects. The natural forms are often stylised and patterned, for example, the tree at the heart of the 1922 woodcut “San Gimignano” is composed of circles and dots, more regular than the swirls of Van Gogh’s foliage. The woodcuts sometimes two blocks, so as to add a grey layer which softens the effects. While the woodcuts are stylised, the detailed lithographs from the same period often seem to take on an effect of hyper-reality.  “Scilla, Calabria, 1931”, with its dark surround and dramatic viewpoint is almost anticipating the style of film noir. At other times their soft tones are like original  pencil sketches. in his woodcuts, he continued to experiment with the use of a single pattern or line: criss-crosses in “Calvi from the Citadel, 1933”, a square grid pattern in “Nocturnal Rome: Church Domes, 1934” and horizontal lines in “Nocturnal Rome: San Nicolas in Carcere, 1934”. The choice of nocturnal scenes made it possible to use minimal cutting to show highlights.

The next stage was marked at the exhibition by the showing in a darkened corridor of the four metre long woodcut “Metamorphosis II, 1939-40”: this was echoed in its use as a floor covering of a ramp from ground to first floor in the exhibition hall in the Science Park in Granada.  The transitions were also animated and shown to great effect on screens using staggered timing so that images flowed from screen to another  in a circular hall in the Alhambra. Fabulous.

At this stage, I tended to forget the woodcutting skills, and just content myself with being blown away by the sheer damned cleverness of it all. (However, it was humbling to think of all those black, green, red and brown carved blocks, 20 of them, with their minute transformations in an infinite cycle from script (logos) to flat shape to perspective to representation- the shock of the appearance of a seaside city, and another when the chess board falls away into mathematical shapes again. A stunning sight, a feat of craftsmanship, and a meditation on interdisciplinarity. And I started this by talking about subject matter. Escher’s answer- everything! And all interconnected, to boot.

From then on, it was a magical tour around the Boethius strip, exploring ever more realistic effects within ever more surrealistic contexts.

“Crossing Worlds” was the title of another phase, which included the famous hands drawing themselves, the depiction of glass spheres and fish-eye lens effects. But the “crossing worlds” were mainly naturalistic, for here, Escher also explored the everyday- the way a reflection in a puddle contains the other world of the reflected trees (Puddle, 1952), the way a stretch of water contains “Three Worlds” (1955)- the surface, the depths and the reflections. The linocut “Rippled surface” 1950, is stunning in its deceptive simplicity.

The last three phases explored flat-plane geometry, three-dimensional forms and increasingly stunning perspectives on architecture. The familiar staircases that keep on going (Relativity, 1953), the vanishing point weirdness of “Print Gallery, 1956”, the “Ascending and Descending” (1960) metaphor for modern bureaucratic life. Amazing enough to think of these, then to draw them, but then to make them into prints… Well, wow.

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