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M. C. Escher at the National Gallery: An incursion into the reality of illusions

By Raymond Aubin on January 14, 2015

Printmaker Maurits Cornelis Escher is like an Old Master who would have lost his way in the 20th century. He produced some 450 prints over his 50 year career. Throughout, he remained obsessed with the representation of space. Fifty-four of his prints are on display at the National Gallery until May 2015. A rare opportunity – and a real treat.

Escher captured popular imagination with his “impossible architectures”. What to think of a circular flight of stairs that you can climb indefinitely? The result is both tangible and bewildering. Any single section of the image is consistent, but the global view does not make sense. Escher’s impossible architectures stand at the junction of several disciplines: optical illusions, topology, and drawing. Yet, Escher was not in the least a psychologist nor a mathematician. He was an artist and did best what artists do: delude. His prints are both intriguing and amusing. These are the qualities of any great piece of art.

The National Gallery owns the third largest collection of Escher’s prints. It totals 230 works. Most of them were donated by one of the artist’s sons, George, who immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. Escher was Dutch. At the age of 24, he settled in Italy under the spell of its landscapes, a period of his life which lasted for 13 years. He also spent time in Spain where he was durably influenced by Moorish designs. He settled back in the Netherlands during the War.

M.C. Escher, Castrovalva, Abruzzi, February 1930, lithograph on beige wove paper, 61 x 48.6 cm; image: 53.1 x 42.3 cm, Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1986, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. M.C. Escher’s “Castrovalva, Abruzzi” © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC.

M.C. Escher, Castrovalva, Abruzzi, February 1930, lithograph on beige wove paper, 61 x 48.6 cm; image: 53.1 x 42.3 cm. © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC.

It is hard to pigeonhole Escher as an artist. He is an anomaly among the creators of his generation. He was no avant-garde. He turned to an old-fashion medium, printmaking with a preference for black and white, at a time when Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon was already 15 years old. His elaborate sketches and its extensive use of squaring up position him as a conceptual artist. Yet, his lifelong obsession for representing space on the surface of the print makes him an experimental innovator.

He slowly moved from one pursuit to the next, always longing for more and for better. He realized his most significant works at the end of his career. Looking at his prints, one can only imagine the excruciating effort demanded by the fine details of his woodcuts and his lithographs. The layout of the exhibition makes the visitor walk chronologically through the works. At the end of the circuit, it is well worth tracing one’s steps back to see the artist’s evolution in reverse and experience his amazing steadfastness.

The pre-1937 realistic Italian landscapes demonstrate his early concern for architectural spaces and perspectives. After leaving Italy, Escher turned to the problem of filling the plane with regular shapes and making them morph one into the other. He was influenced by the Islamic tiling art he saw in Spain, yet he used recognizable elements such as birds and fish. It is after the War that Escher began to break new grounds in the representation of perspective. Instead of doing away with perspective like other moderns, he pushed its limits. He became the spiritual heir of Renaissance innovator Brunelleschi who had developed the rules for vanishing points in painting. This lead him to the impossible architectures.

M.C. Escher, Sky and Water I, June 1938, woodcut on laid japan paper, 48.9 x 50 cm; image: 43.8 x 43.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water I” © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC.

M.C. Escher, Sky and Water I, June 1938, woodcut on laid japan paper, 48.9 x 50 cm; image: 43.8 x 43.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water I” © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC.

 

If one work can summarize the spirit of Escher, it is to be found in Print Gallery, a lithograph from 1956. This masterpiece can be seen in the last section of the exhibition. It is worth the visit in itself. The method for completing the centre of the image escaped Escher: he left a hole instead with his signature. The mathematical problem posed by Print Gallery was tackled and solved only recently. Art and mathematics go hand in hand better than ever before.

M.C Escher: The Mathemagician is on view at the National Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Drive) until May 3, 2015. Click here for the gallery’s hours and admission fees.