Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Graphic genius: Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

House of Stairs
Now don’t get me wrong: regenerating 10 derelict houses is A Good Thing – but come on, is it really art?

That is the question triggered by the announcement a few weeks ago that this year’s Turner Prize has been awarded to Assemble, an architecture and design collective, for its work on derelict properties in Toxteth, Liverpool.

Of course, if you can label a ‘supernatural study centre, which screens interviews with people who claim to have had paranormal activities as ‘art’, then perhaps it is.

If you can use ‘art’ to describe an avant-garde, a cappella 24-minute opera (rather than ‘music’ or ‘opera’), then that regeneration might well qualify as art.

Yet it is indicative of the mess that art is in these days – not least in the UK – and of the just how far up it’s own fundament that the art establishment is, that it still treats with disdain anything that might be a bit ‘graphic’ – and that’s not ‘graphic’ in the sexual sense.

All of which brings us to what is one of the best exhibitions to be seen on these shores this year, having first been seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Ascending and Descending
The Amazing World of MC Escher is the first major UK retrospective – even more incredible when you consider that there us only example of his work on display in a UK gallery (Day and Night at the Hunterian in Glasgow).

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands in 1898. A sickly child, he failed his final exams – except for maths – and went to study architecture at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, before he was talent-spotted by the head of the graphic art section and hauled across to that discipline.

If his name isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue, millions are familiar with his work – particularly the illusory pieces that feature, for instance, impossible staircases.

Adored by mathematicians and hippies alike, he remains suspect for the art establishment – doubtless not least because he was a graphic artist.

And in an era when UK art schools no longer even bother to teach drawing, his dazzling skills as a draughtsman could be viewed as unfashionable for those who might prefer to pretend to enjoy turgid filmed rants or photographs of ancient vases being vandalised.

The works are even more extraordinary when you realise that many of them are prints – and as someone who has done a teensy weensy bit of printing this year, the level of complexity and detail proved almost mind blowing.

The most famous works are here: the illusions of impossible buildings include Ascending and Descending, a lithograph from 1960, which was one of the first of Escher’s works that I became aware of – if memory serves me correctly, via a feature on Blue Peter.

These works also include House of Stairs, a 1951 lithograph, with its rather delightful little ‘curl-ups’ trundling up and down and around.

And there are also pieces that demonstrate Escher’s fascinating with representing flat and three-dimensional objects, as with the little Reptiles (1943) that crawl out of the paper and become ‘real’ before crawling back into the paper, while Drawing Hands (1948) is another dazzling example of that same fascination.

You can quite easily get lost in 1938’s iconic Day and Night, which incorporates Escher’s famous tessellations – a technique inspired by studying Islamic geometric patterns during a trip to Alhambra in Granada.

Day and Night
The tessellation-based lithograph, Encounter, from 1944 has something about it that evokes Dante – a point that may (or may not) be related to its being produced during WWII.

And of the tessellations, Metamorphosis II, a woodcut from 1939, takes us on an extraordinary graphic journey of transformation – here, taking up one wall of the exhibition rooms.

The statistics are incredible. This print measures 19.2 by 389.5 cm and was printed from 20 blocks on 3 combined sheets.

A similar, but much larger version – Metamorphosis III – of this adorned the post office on the Kerkplein in the Hague, made in 1967-8 as a commission. It was moved to a new home at Schipol Airport in 2008.

Still Life and Street
But as with all the works on display in Dulwich, here you have a supperb opportunity to get really close up to them to be able to revel in the detail.

Eye, with its reflected human skull, is one of his eight mezzotints and has wonderful Manet-like blacks – evidence (were it required) of Escher’s mastery of more than one print-making technique.

But there are plenty of less-familiar works here too.

For me, one of his earliest works, the woodcut Bonifacio (1928) created after visiting Corsica, is just astonishing – not least for the extraordinary variety of marks that he used.

Still Life and Street, a woodcut from 1937, is one of those deceptive pieces that it takes a moment to realise are impossible.

For all the surreal nature of much of Escher’s work, he was not attached to Surrealism and doesn’t seem to have known or communicated with any of the Surrealists artists.

For all that his work appealed to the likes of hippies and the Flower Power generation, he refused a commission for Rolling Stones cover after Mick Jagger made the mistake of writing to him by his first name.

A quiet man, he was far more interested in corresponding with mathematicians, Harold Coxeter and Roger Penrose.

But that’s not to say that his works are po-faced. They’re often playful and full of irony. And they remain technically astonishing.

A relatively small exhibition by the standards of the vast blockbusters found in central London galleries in recent years, it nonetheless takes plenty of time to view – simply because you need the time to concentrate and digest.

But if the art establishment continues to turn up its nose, then that should not stop us relishing just what a fabulous artist Escher was and just what a magnificent legacy he leaves – and as an example of just what graphic art can mean.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 17 January. Find out more at

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