Escher, M. C. (1898-1972)

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Escher, M. C. (1898-1972)

With his fantastically precise, yet hallucinatory and illusional imagery, graphic artist M.C. Escher became a favorite of students and those who indulged in chemically altered states in the 1960s. Escher was best known for his tessellation, or repeating geometric patterns, and he also liked to draw scenes that incorporated several different spatial perspectives. In the course of time, his work became some of the most recognizable in the art world. Today, decks of playing cards and T-shirts decorated with his distinctive black and white patterns are usually found in museum gift stores next to the Van Gogh items—somewhat ironic in that, during his lifetime, Escher was dismissed by the traditional arts establishment as "too cerebral."

Escher died in 1972, not long after the heady counterculture of the 1960s had elevated his art to iconic status. "The hippies of San Francisco continue to print my work illegally. I received some of the grisly results through a friendly customer over there," he wrote in his journal on April 20, 1969. He was born Maurits Cornelis Escher in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden in 1898. As a youth he studied architecture, but then switched to graphic art. From 1923 to 1935 he lived in southern Italy, where he sketched traditional landscapes and architectural sites, from which he made woodcuts or lithographs. Some of this work, however, foreshadowed his later creativity; the pattern he painstakingly reproduced in St. Peter's, Rome (1928), for example, served as a precursor to his penchant for infinitely repeated abstractions, while his fascination with the hallucinatory is presaged in the 1935 woodcut Dream, in which an enormous insect visits the body of a recumbent bishop.

In the mid-1930s, the artist spent time in Spain, and his visits to Granada's Alhambra and the famed La Mezquita (mosque) of Cordoba gave him fresh inspiration. Both of these impressive architectural legacies from Spain's Moorish past housed a treasure of decorative art in abstract patterns, since Islamic art prohibited any representational imagery. At this point Escher began to think more about spatial relationships and the depiction of the infinite. His work soon took another direction when he began to fill space entirely with a repeating image.

In other works he would create a fantastical scene that had no counterpart in reality. The 1938 woodcut Day and Night depicts checkerboard farm fields, which morph into birds; the black birds are flying to the left into daylight, while the white flock heads toward darkness. Escher also somehow managed to mirror the opposite but concurrent hours into the landscape below them. Another famous work from this era, the 1942 lithograph Verbum, represents his fascination with the "closed cycle" in its images of reptiles that become fish who then become birds. Amphibians always remained a particular favorite for the artist: in the 1943 lithograph Reptiles, his subjects crawl off a piece of paper in a circular trajectory, during which they become three-dimensional; one exhales a little smoke before it returns to two dimensions.

These, and other creations, wrote Robert Hughes in Time, "are scientific demonstrations of how to visualize the impossible." Yet far from being a capricious fantasist, Escher was deeply interested in the hard sciences. The artist regularly corresponded with mathematicians, and had little contact or respect for other artists, especially those working in modernism. "I consider 60 percent of the artists nuts and fakes," he once said of those whose work hung in Amsterdam's famed Stedelijk Museum. He handled much of the business of art himself, selling his images directly to college professors who had requested them for use in mathematical textbooks. He also sold inexpensive prints of his works in college bookstores, which helped give him a certain cachet among the brainy. One of the most enthusiastic of American collectors during his lifetime was the engineer grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, Cornelius Van Schaak Roosevelt, but, for the most part, Escher was largely ignored by the art world. In the 1960s, among the very few periodicals that ran articles on him were Life, Scientific American, and Rolling Stone, whose issue No. 52 also ran an article speculating about the possible breakup of the Beatles.

A 1968 retrospective of Escher's work in The Hague, Holland's seat of government, gave his popularity something of an international boost, and an Escher Foundation was established in 1968 to market and promote his prints. Rock album covers began using his imagery, which further popularized it, and items with his signature double helixes or reptilian nightmares began appearing in the hippie mail-order bible, The Whole Earth Catalog. In 1971 the staid art-book publisher Abrams issued a well-received tome, The World of M. C. Escher. Shortly after his death in 1972, Washington D.C.'s National Gallery hosted an exhibition of Escher graphics. "Once the focus of a small, rather cultish, mostly non-art-world audience … Escher has in recent years become the focus of a vast rather cultish, mostly non-art-world audience," wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New York Times that same year. The art critic, noting that Escher's fan base seemed confined to "scientists and stoned kids," observed dryly that the "psychedelic young" had seized upon Escher imagery in part because of his "terrific virtuosity" and "gamut of fanciful imagery," not to mention accessibility. "Renditions of easily grasped intellectual and sentimental conceits, laced with the bizarre, they yield their essences, it might be said, with alacrity," Schjeldahl declared. "They play intricate tricks in a direct, even blatant way, thus teasing the viewer and flattering him at once."

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Albright, Thomas. "Visuals." Rolling Stone. 2 February 1970.

Bool, F. H., et al. M. C. Escher: His Life and Complete Graphic Work. New York, Abradale Press, 1992.

Davis, Douglas, "Teasing the Brain." Newsweek. 31 July 1972, 60-61.

Gardner, Martin. "Mathematical Games." Scientific American. April 1966, 110-1212.

Hughes, Robert. "N-dimensional Reality." Time. 17 April 1972, 64.

Schjeldahl, Peter. "The Games M. C. Escher Plays." New York Times. 23 July 1972, sec. II, 15.

The World of M. C. Escher (with texts by M. C. Escher and J. L. Locher). New York, Abrams, 1971.