Reassembling Reality: ‘The Amazing World of M.C. Escher’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5/11/2015

“Chaos is present everywhere,” Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972)  once stated, “whereas order remains an impossible ideal. We can always hope.” ‘The Amazing World of M.C. Escher’ – the first major exhibition of Escher’s work in the UK – is as well ordered as the artist in question’s thought-provoking and mind-bending  engravings and lithographs. Straightforwardly arranged in chronological order of creation along the light grey walls of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition space, Escher’s works need little more than a brief caption – written in black on slightly-darker grey to be easier on the eye – and a neat frame for its genius to be appreciated. Over 100 works are divided into roughly-themed rooms, marking changes in Escher’s life, as well as his experimentation with technique and conceptual interests.

It’s impossible not to be struck by the rationality, logic and neatness of Escher’s work, in which clean, sharp lines running in parallel achieve such stunning visual effects of perspective; and, reading Escher discuss his own work and practice in volumes such as Taschen’s ‘The Graphic Work: M.C. Escher’ ,  it’s clear that he was a man in possession of an almost-obsessively organised and meticulous mind. Even his printed signature – MCE aligned inside a rectangle – is exquisitely neat and geometric, with none of the flourishes or curlicues usually present in handwriting.

Yet, despite the logic of their construction and Escher’s mathematical fascinations, his work still manages to capture and convey human emotion and warmth. For example, there are wonderful comic details in the faces of the nine large, grumpy-looking, bearded men who sit crossed legged in the lithograph ‘Plane-filling Motif with Human Figures’ (1920 or ’21), which appears to have influenced Scottish novelist and illustrator Alasdair Gray. Also, ‘Portrait of G.A. Escher’ (1935) captures the artist’s father in a near photo-realist lithograph, brimming with personality and affection.

Among the most surprising works on display is ‘Dolphins’ (1923), a woodcut depicting a boat trip from Amsterdam to Spain where Escher saw dolphins playing, illuminated by the “phosphorescent sea.” The print bears almost none of his hallmarks: little sense of perspective, a lack of geometric shapes, no reference to concepts from mathematics or physics. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional, fairly abstract image that captures the feel and atmosphere of a scene of near-sublime natural beauty, the shimmering glow of the leaping dolphin describing a dramatic sweeping arc against the murky nighttime water.

Judging by the exhibition’s information panels it seems that Escher’s life was relatively free from unusual and/or traumatic events: following his training in graphic techniques in 1922, he travelled Europe with his family, engrossed in sketching and perfecting his printmaking. By all accounts a quiet peace-loving man, Escher hated his fame and remained blissfully unconcerned with politics or  popular culture. Tellingly, despite his absolute dedication to his craft, he seems to have produced no prints between 1923 and 1925  whilst preparing to marry his soon-to-be wife of many years, Jetta Umiker.

We are however treated to the occasional surprising tidbit. For instance, in 1946 Escher found a mummified frog behind a piece of furniture, inspiring him to produce a print of the same name. It’s almost the start of a strange tale…

Escher and the Weird

Despite their ordered and logical nature, Escher’s works are often anything but calming and reassuring; and it’s clear to me that they intersect with the Weird at many points, as with the Surreal and the Cubist. In fact, a short entry on Escher was featured in an 85th anniversary edition of Weird Tales. It’s unlikely that Escher was aware of Weird Tales and its writers, and likewise he had nothing directly to do with the contemporaneous Surrealist movement, although there are of course certain overlaps. ‘Still Life with Mirror’ (1934), for example, depicting a mirror with an impossible reflection, is strongly reminiscent of the work of Rene Magritte (1898-1967) as is ‘Study for a Mezquito’ (1936).

Escher’s ‘Dream (Mantis Religiosa)’ (1935), a wood engraving, is amongst his most strange and sinister prints. Against the science-fictional backdrop of what appears to be a temple open to the stars in outer space, a praying mantis sits on a recumbent bishop, who is either sleeping and dreaming, or perhaps posthumously encased in stone. Explicitly inspired by a dream, the image includes elements from several genres of the fantastic – horror, fantasy, science fiction – which combine to create Weirdness (New Weird writer China Miéville argues for such genre hybridity as often essential to Weird writing), as well as the odd juxtapositions captured in realist detail inherent to Surrealism.

The exhibition copy notes the influence of painter Heironymous Bosch as well as other Early Netherlandish artists on Escher. Escher’s work displays little of the grim phantasmagoria or moralism of Bosch’s work in an overt manner, but there are compositional similarities in the way that both artists often focus on the whole surface of the image rather than a central subject, and fill even their strangest images with a plethora of realist detail. The most obvious tribute to Bosch is the appearance of a figure directly copied from ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1503-1504) – a woman in trailing gown and pointed hat – appearing in Escher’s ‘Belvedere’ (1958). (I have linked to both images should you wish to play Weird ‘Where’s Wally?’) If something of the Medieval hellish feel of Bosch is evoked in ‘Belvedere’ it is offset by a typical Escheresque and science-fictional image – a man contemplating an impossible four-dimensional object similar to a tesseract or hypercube.

The early twentieth century saw the emergence of radical theories and developments in the history of science, with Escher amongst many artists inspired by ideas such as non-Euclidean geometry and the Theory of General Relativity. Often Escher’s prints cause confusion through special effects of tessellation, perspective and almost hypereal renderings of three-dimensional objects. So, just as the protagonist in H.P. Lovecraft’s  short story ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1933) enters strange dimensions through a ‘kaleidoscopic polyhedron of rapidly shifting surface angles’ , Escher’s famous impossible staircases and paradoxical rooms draw the viewer inside nightmarish chambers of logic and confusion.

The genre of science fiction is evoked, again and again, especially in Escher’s later works. ‘Double planetoid’ (1949) and ‘Tetrahedral planetoid‘ (1954) apply polyhedron shapes to fantastic landscapes, and produce an effect of Weirdness in both form and content. The lithograph ‘Bond of Union’ (1956) – depicting the atomically disassembled yet partly joined heads of both Escher and his wife – was inspired by H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, and bears similarities with Salvador Dali’s contemporaneous ‘Galataea of the Spheres’ (1952) and his related manifesto ‘Nuclear Mysticism’.

Natural imagery is still present with Weird flora and fauna creeping into Escher’s work. ‘Double Planetoid’ depicts “weird vegetation and primitive beasts”, while the ‘curl ups’ of ‘House of Stairs’ (1951) are lizard- and wheel-like creatures Escher used to express his “dissatisfaction” at nature for providing a lack of wheel shaped creatures (I couldn’t help but think of the Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy).

Many works explore themes of evolution and metamorphosis, with humans and animals passing through various stages of combination or transition. Scales and fins become wings and claws, hands and feet.

Tessellated honeycomb patterns split off into the bees that produced them, which lose detail, becoming outlined and forming the negative image of fish, becoming jagged human forms flicker-dancing round and round in a Victorian zoetrope.

Reptiles emerge from penciled hexagons on a notepad and out onto the desk, only to dissolve back to the page.

The illustrator’s hand draws its reflection outlining its double into existence.

Infinite ouroboros spirals…

Jarring fractal repetitions…

The eye is the window to the soul where death’s ball-less panes look at you through your reflection…

Viewing these works, there is the sense of Escher as demiurge who creates and controls the atoms of reality, logician who calmly strives to create a “harmonious world order”, but also as trickster who reassembles it all, and smiles at our confusion.

I would recommend ‘The Amazing World of M.C. Escher’ to anybody, and it’s an exhibition that’s long overdue. Escher’s work plays with our perception of reality. It’s not always comfortable, but it has an astonishing Weird logic all of its own.

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‘The Amazing World of M.C Escher’ runs at Dulwich Picture gallery from 14 October 2015 to 17 January 2016. To book a slot for timed entry, please view the website.

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