In the 1960s, the mathematically inspired images of Dutch artist M.C. Escher became a feature of popular culture. I remember album covers, T-shirts, posters and jigsaw puzzles emblazoned with the artist’s visual puzzles, which appealed to science nerds and psychedelic aficionados alike.
Most familiar to the general public is probably his 1938 woodcut “Sky and Water,” a jigsaw puzzle of light and dark elements. The horizontal rows of white fish and dark birds alternately come into prominence depending upon whether the eye rests on the white spaces or the dark. Equally omnipresent in the public eye have been “Drawing Hands,” a 1948 lithograph of two finely detailed hands caught in the act of penciling in the shirt cuffs of their opposite number, all within the confines of a piece of paper seemingly affixed to the surface of the image with pins, and “Relativity,” a 1953 lithograph depicting 16 people navigating the impossible stairways of a large atrium space wherein three different gravity sources apply.
These three very famous images and more are now on view at the Columbia Museum of Art in a special exhibition simply titled “M.C. Escher.” Until June 6, all six first-floor galleries are chockablock with over 100 works culled from the world’s largest private collection of the artist’s work.
The exhibition traces Escher’s long career, beginning with his illustrative work in the early ’20s when he was still a student of architecture and the decorative arts in Haarlem to the puzzle pieces characteristic of his mature style, which he continued to perfect from the late 1930s right up to his death in 1972 at the age of 71. A saunter through the galleries provides a survey of his evolving aesthetic, which is marked by his gradually replacing the outside world as the primary subject of inspiration with a growing focus on what critics have termed Escher’s “mental imagery,” very often informed by mathematical concepts.
In the second and third galleries, visitors will find, for example, works that reveal the artist’s early fascination with the natural world and the built environment. Indeed, to those already familiar with the “magical patterns” of Escher’s later years, the works in these middle galleries may come as a revelation. I was particularly drawn to the scenes of Italy produced as a result of the artist’s annual spring and summer travels to that country from 1922 to 1935. One can already see certain aspects of his later work in these early renderings of real structures, such as the 1930 lithograph “Street in Scanno, Abruzzi” and the 1931 woodblock “Coast of Almalfi.” One sees the same burgeoning fascination with perspective, the same manipulation of light and dark, and the same attempt to make of 2-D space a 3-D image.
Visitors are sure to find works in the current show that capture their individual imagination. Because Escher’s 1935 self-portrait “Hand with Reflecting Sphere” has long been a favorite image of mine, for example, I was particularly intrigued by the artist’s other experiments with reflective surfaces. I once had in my dorm room in the late ’60s a poster of this tour-de-force lithograph featuring Escher’s own hand holding a sphere in which is reflected the artist himself and the room in which he sits; the image seemed at the time to hold up a mirror to my own self-reflection at a pivotal point in my life.
The current exhibition includes a number of the artist’s self-portraits captured in reflective surfaces, including the 1921 woodcut “The Sphere,” which in this case is a wall mirror, and the 1946 lithograph “Three Spheres II,” which features a horizontal assemblage of three orbs: from left to right, a glass sphere filled with water, a metal sphere reflecting Escher in its shiny surface, and an opaque sphere presumably filled with sand.
The spherical pieces not only reflect the artist’s preoccupation with his own physical form but also exemplify his meticulous craftsmanship and his lifelong fascination with surfaces and shapes and patterns, which he frequently combined to produce intriguing optical illusions.
The many examples of Escher’s printmaking mastery are supplemented in the current show by equally engaging artifacts. Visitors will enjoy watching a short film of the artist working on his final print in 1969 and inspecting up close some of Escher’s carved woodblocks and an etched lithographic stone.
All in all, the exhibition “M.C. Escher” provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a fascinating artist, one who was largely underappreciated by the art establishment but whose graphic inventiveness garnered for him an international following.