MC Escher’s woodcut ‘Day and Night’ (1938)
MC Escher’s woodcut ‘Day and Night’ (1938)

A master of visual conundrums, impossible interiors, Ovidian landscapes and protean patterns, MC Escher has influenced a generation of artists, illustrators and animators. The Dutch printmaker’s images have inspired episodes of The Simpsons and scenes in blockbuster movies. They have appeared on album covers, postage stamps, bookplates and T-shirts.

Museums in the US, notably Washington’s National Gallery of Art, have built up fine assemblies of his work. British public collections, by contrast, can muster just one image between them — “Day and Night” in the Hunterian collection at Glasgow University — and that was acquired by the geography department. Now, however, a splendid exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is giving British art lovers the chance to see Escher in all his multi-faceted glory.

His most famous engraving, “Relativity”, is included here. Made in 1953, it shows faceless mannequins walking up and down staircases in an atrium-like interior. The geometry is impeccable but also baffling: the figures are walking up and down the same staircase at the same time yet — impossibly — both moving in the same direction.

“Relativity” was made when Escher was nearly 60. Thanks to the methodical precision of the curators and excellent loans which include letters exchanged by Escher and the mathematician HSM Coxeter, the show illustrates how the artist reached such mind-expanding heights in the latter half of his career. It opens, though, with engravings made when the artist was barely in his twenties. From the lyrical, realist line with which he carves out his lovely “White Cat” in 1919 to the chunky cubist facets that comprise a male portrait, here is a young artist experimenting with styles, all of which he masters with aplomb.

The first hint that Escher’s was a world less ordinary comes in the form of “Plane-Filling Motif with Human Figures” (1920/21), a woodcut showing a polygon filled with a crystalline shape on to whose facets identical figures have been carved, each bordered by a black line.

MC Escher’s ‘Castrovalva, Abruzzi’ (1930)
MC Escher’s ‘Castrovalva, Abruzzi’ (1930) © The MC Escher Company, Baarn

Two years later, with the woodcut “Eight Heads”, Escher lost that boundary. The octet of individual visages is only visible as such in the central square. Elsewhere, the contours of hairline, nose and chin flow in and out of each other to create a warp and weft that is simultaneously figurative and abstract, finite yet limitless in its intention to continue beyond the frame.

This is an example of true tessellation. Described by curator Micky Piller as “a pattern of identical shapes that interlock and can be repeated endlessly”, tessellations were to become a crucial tool in Escher’s ambition to “approach infinity as closely as possible by means of figments of the imagination”. This ambition to explore the farthest reaches of possibility was shared by numerous 20th-century artists, from Kazimir Malevich to Lucio Fontana.

Maurits Cornelis Escher’s journey began in Leeuwarden, a provincial Dutch city. After miserable school years, in which he failed his final exam, he studied at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. Thanks to the encouragement of a teacher, Escher transferred to the graphic arts department. There, he developed his engraving technique, finding inspiration in the school’s collection of Japanese art as well as the Japanese woodcuts his father owned. Since this type of work eschews the single perspective that has been beloved of European painters since the Renaissance, perhaps it inspired Escher to adopt those mystifying multiple vanishing points later in his career.

‘Eight Heads’ (1922)
‘Eight Heads’ (1922) © The MC Escher Company, Baarn

First, however, he embarked on a decade-long love affair with the Mediterranean. In 1922, he set off through Spain and Italy. At the Alhambra, he saw and copied the Islamic tile patterns whose proliferating patterns echoed his own experiments. For many years it was believed that the Alhambra inspired Escher’s tessellations but, as this show demonstrates, he was already on the same track as the Moorish craftsmen. Islamic geometric patterns reflect the engagement with infinity that is present in Sufi philosophy as well as that of Tao and Zen.

But it was Italy that captured Escher’s imagination. Starting with his 1923 print of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, over the next decade he produced a body of engravings of Italian views. What unites these images — “San Gimignano” (1923), “South Italian Landscape” (1929), “Castrovalva, Abruzzi” (1930) — is a fascination with extreme perspectives. Characterised by towns perched on rearing peaks or crouched in plunging valleys, in this rollercoaster ride of vistas the black-and-white of his chosen medium plays across positive and negative space to achieve topographic melodrama.

‘Belvedere’ (1958)
‘Belvedere’ (1958) © Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Escher lived in Rome from 1925 to 1935. When he left to settle in Uccle, Belgium, his work took another leap forward. After revisiting the Alhambra in 1936, he turned again to tessellations, this time inspired also by articles about crystal structures sent to him by his half-brother Beer, who was a geologist.

In his woodcut “Metamorphosis I” (1937), Escher transforms a southern Italian town into an Asiatic figure by stripping out details of windows and staircases until the houses resemble abstract building blocks. These he flattens from three dimensions to two before adding on feet and hands so discreetly the spectator is barely aware of the shift. By the end, all that remains is a single figure whom Escher has managed to dress in full Oriental costume without losing the sense of flow. It is a perfect example of his conviction that “if you want to express something impossible, you must keep to certain rules. The element of mystery . . . should be surrounded and veiled by a quite obvious, readily recognisable commonness.”

By the 1950s, Escher’s vision had attracted the attention of leading mathematicians such as HSM Coxeter and Roger Penrose. After the pair corresponded about infinity in 1957, Coxeter used Escher’s illustrations in a lecture on crystal symmetry.

‘Circle Limit III’ (1959)
‘Circle Limit III’ (1959) © Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Upon reading Coxeter’s paper, Escher replied that the mathematics were “much too learned for a simple, self-made plane pattern-man like me”. Escher arrived at the same point as the intellectuals through his eye rather than his mind. He was enormously struck by one of Coxeter’s illustrations of a crystal because it showed him the answer to a question that had long perplexed him: how to make identical shapes become smaller towards the edge of the surface so as to suggest that they continue infinitely beyond it. With a compass he traced out the illustration’s pattern then applied it to woodcuts in his “Circle Limit” series, two of which are on display here. Less showy than his grand figurative images, such abstract musings are nevertheless revelatory.

Until his death in 1972, he never lost his ludic touch. “Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase?” he jested at an award ceremony in 1965. It’s a pleasure to see his mischievous brand of Zen given such sensitive treatment.

‘The Amazing World of MC Escher’, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, to September 27.

Photographs: The MC Escher Company, Baarn; Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Edinburgh Art Festival, until August 30.

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