Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Over Thanksgiving break, I took a jaunt to one of my old haunts: The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was excited to see the current show on display, “M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion,” and I am pleased to report that the exhibit provided an engrossing, in-depth Escher experience that any museum would be proud to mount.
The exhibit spans several galleries, and for good reason: there are around 180 works on display, primarily on loan from the Herakleidon Museum in Athens, Greece. For those not in the know, M.C. Escher was a Dutch artist whose works spanned much of the 20th century. He is best known for his mathematical and illusionistic woodcuts, mezzotints, and lithographs, all of which are imbued with a careful internal logic and sense of mystery and impossibility. I also exited “M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion” having been exposed to a good many early works of his that make use of different media, such as pen-and-ink, crayon, and charcoal.
This exhibit was an excellent opportunity to see how Escher’s oeuvre shifted and morphed and re-morphed over the course of his life. The exhibit began with his simpler woodcuts of Italian landscapes and Biblical scenes, progressed to his experimentations with creating whole other worlds, and culminated in his later fascination with “tessellations” and metamorphosis. It’s intriguing to see how his more well-known surrealist style is nascent in his more realistic works: it’s as if we are watching him reach a whole new level of consciousness, a new state of mind, through his artwork.
While the majority of his Italian landscape prints are somewhat pedestrian among his body of work, among the early 1920s works are the highlights Second Day of Creation (1925), a woodcut whose defined line-work echoes Japanese seascapes, and Standing Nude (1920s), a charcoal and crayon drawing of a spare, elegant, nude woman. Highlights from later in his early career include the Tower of Babel (1928) and La Cathédrale Engloutie (1929), both of which display Escher’s dipping his toe into the waters of surrealism. The former work, with its dramatic two-point perspective and view from above, recalls later “impossible” works such as Ascending and Descending (1960); the latter creates a dreamlike, melancholy air with its half-submerged cathedral and tiny boat approaching the structure. Also on display is the compelling Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (1935), which hints slyly at Escher’s later depictions of endless colonnades and barrel-vaulted ceilings.
Moving along to his more well-known works, the exhibit has on display all of the classics, without which an exhibit on Escher would be incomplete: Drawing Hands (1948), which elegantly depicts an endless cycle of two hands drawing one another into life; the aforementioned Ascending and Descending, with its endless fantastical architecture, and Three Worlds (1955), which folds several avenues of the natural world onto one another. Each of these works is famous, and rightly so.
Many of Escher’s works after 1938 were concerned with mathematics and tesselations. As I am not a student of mathematics, I cannot comment on the mathematical principles of Escher’s tessellations; I can only comment on the beauty of these ingenious, playful, and excellently rendered works of art.
Highlights among these tessellations include Day and Night (1938), which depicts reversed, black-and-white mirror images of birds becoming fields as they loom over matching towns in the corners of the composition; and Metamorphosis 2 (1940), a stunning feat of technical mastery and creativity. I could only stare, amazed, as a chessboard became reptiles, which became hexagons, which became bugs, which became fish, then birds, then blocks, then buildings, then a chess game, to black and white squares again, all as natural and visually smooth as can be. Also entertaining is the witty Liberation (1955), in which triangles printed onto a piece of parchment wrest themselves out of the geometric shapes, turn into birds, and fly off the paper. While I am someone who shies away from mathematics in general, these tessellations reveal a beauty in math that is all too easy to ignore. There is a comforting aspect in the rigidity of the mathematical rules he is following, and it is within the confines of the rules of mathematics that Escher is most free.
I highly recommend seeing “M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion.” Its breadth and depth are quite impressive, and any viewer will come out of this exhibit realizing that Escher has more to offer than what we usually see on posters and in coffee table books. If you are in the New England area, don’t miss it!