M.C. ESCHER

by Marge Bulmer

"Hand with Reflecting Globe,"
lithograph, 32 x 21.5 cm, 1935.

 

 

""Escher No. 16 [Greyhound],"
pencil/ink/watercolor,
33.3 x 24.3 cm, 1938.

(Herbert Palmer Gallery, West Hollywood) M.C. Escher's art has an infallible sense of composition, a refinement of form, a distinct harmony, and an inner discipline. His prints and woodcuts reflect a tension inherent in representing three-dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Unlike Renaissance painters who strived to reproduce a world in which image and reality were indistinguishable, Escher's recognizable images are optical illusions. Escher took delight in a kind of deceit, desiring his viewers to derive the same sensation as when entertained by a magician. His art is a journey of discovery where images appear and disappear into negative and positive space.

Before 1937 Escher's art was generally pictorial representations of objects and landscapes. He sketched and drew scenes that interested him for their beauty. After 1937 this changed dramatically. He became interested in regularity and mathematical structure, and the conflict found in every picture representing three-dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. He did not want anyone to read ulterior meanings into his work. When a spectator declared that the reptiles in a piece symbolized reincarnation, he flatly stated, "I have not attempted to depict anything mystic; what some claim to be mysterious is nothing more than a conscious or unconscious deceit! I have had a fine old time expressing concepts in visual terms, with no other aim than to find ways of reporting my discoveries." Despite this disclaimer, and despite the fact that his art is primarily cerebral, his prints have an abnormality, a surrealism that frequently emits an emotional response.

Until the '60s art critics showed little interest in Escher. He was not recognized as a fine artist and was generally ignored. It was academic mathematicians and physicists who responded to his art. They would use his drawings to illustrate advanced concepts. They invited him to attend their lectures on abstract ideas. But he was a layman in math and never understood their abstractions or advanced principles. He admitted, "I never got a passing mark in math."

He built his woodcuts and lithographs like a skilled carpenter. In Encounter black and white crouching figures appear on a wall. The floor has a circular hole in which the figures are reflected. The figures leave the wall and surround the hole until the black figures meet the white ones in the center. By the time they meet, the white figures are erect. A subtle transformation occurs. The figures have evolved and shake hands in the center at the bottom. In Sky and Water one sees fish turn from carefully rendered images into white space and then into black birds. The effect is mesmerizing.

In Hand Reflecting a Sphere he creates an impossible situation in which two worlds coexist. The artist's hand supports a globe in which the hand of the artist and the artist's environment are reflected. The globe collects the whole room--walls, ceiling, floor. The artist's confrontational gaze makes the viewer's own head the center. No matter how you turn or twist yourself, you cannot get away from that central point. You are immovably the focus of the world.

Escher explains, "Now isn't that a splendid round globe? Wrong! You are quite mistaken--it is completely flat. Now, just look in the middle. I have drawn the thing folded over. So you see it really must be flat, or I could not have folded it. And at the bottom of the print I have laid the thing down horizontally. And in spite of this, I guess your imagination will go and turn it into a three-dimensional egg. Just satisfy yourself about this with the touch of your fingers over the paper--and feel how flat it really is. Drawing is deception; it suggests three-dimensions when there are but two! And no matter how hard I try to convince you about this deception, you persist in seeing three-dimensional objects."

 

"Sky and Water I," woodcut,
44 x 44 cm, 1938.

 

"Symmetry Watercolor 78,"
watercolor/colored pencil,
7 7/8 x 7 7/8", 1950.

By the late '60s Escher had been accepted as a fine artist. Critics acknowledged his compelling structure and the intellectual challenge of his art. They understood that above and below, right and left, near and far appear to be no more than relative and interchangeable at will. Escher helps us see new relationships between point, surface and spaces. His spatial worlds are both strange and possible.