First visit was just the beginning: Reflections on Escher retrospective, part I

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

When it comes to engagement, the recently closed exhibition M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician at the National Gallery of Canada was a first for me. Never before have I devoted so much time and thought to one exhibition: three visits, a guided tour, a chat with the curator, and a bit of research to boot. I didn’t plan to get so involved, but the more I saw and learned, the more I wanted to dig deeper. All this engagement led to unexpected insight and new appreciation of Escher’s work.

First visit

My visit to this Escher retrospective coincided with a guided tour by its curator Sonia Del Re. Not surprisingly, much of the exhibition was devoted to the famous, mind-twisting and awe-inspiring prints based on the regular division of the plane (patterns of repeating shapes or tessellations) and the impossible spaces. As the curator shared facts about Escher’s life and work, one remark in particular caught my attention. With respect to the regular division prints, Del Re said that Escher was able to take complex concepts and present them in a simple and approachable way.

Although I knew that Escher’s work was based on math, the idea that these mind-boggling designs could be presenting anything in a simple way had not occurred to me. The figurative nature of Escher’s art makes it easy to admire the amazing detail and complexity in his prints, but it doesn’t make them simple.

The curator’s remark also reminded me of what I had learned about abstract art: the object of abstraction is to strip down the figurative elements until only the essence remains; in other words, to go from familiar to complex.

The two concepts clashed in my mind. Much of abstract art does not look complex, quite the opposite, it often looks like something a child could do. Escher’s work, on the other hand, looks like something few adults could do, so it’s hard to think of it as expressing something in a simple way.

Following the tour I reached out to the curator to learn more. She elaborated in a telephone interview.

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Imaging mathematical concepts

“When you think back to the beginning of the 20th century (beginning of Escher’s production), we think of cubism, particularly Picasso,” said Del Re. “Picasso was taking figurative shapes, so say a female model, or female portrait, and turning them into abstract shapes. Escher did exactly the opposite.

“Instead of trying to break with the past and break with tradition, he’s really focusing on the idea of putting difficult things to understand into shape. So, he is really into that tradition of the old masters, where he is imaging and imaginating things for us. For me he is a real traditionalist in that sense…

“What he is doing in his later mathematical works (regular division of the plane) is taking concepts that can be very complex for us to comprehend because they are, in fact, based on mathematical formulas…and he is turning these mathematical formulas into images. For example, in his series Circle Limit, he is using one shape (such as a fish) and repeating it to infinity within a circle, constantly diminishing that one shape. And then we get the impression that that one shape basically dissipates into space, becoming smaller and smaller continually.”

These mathematical works were inspired by elaborate tile designs that Escher studied and sketched at a Moorish castle near Granada, Spain, the Alhambra. Composed of geometric shapes, these patterns covered the whole surface of a floor for example, with no overlaps and no gaps.

“But Escher added several difficulties to that,” points out Del Re. “He wasn’t interested in pure geometrical shapes. He wanted the shapes to be familiar to people, so he integrated animals and human shapes in his patterns, so that the viewer can feel compelled by the artwork…He is not only making the patterns figurative – a lizard or a fish – but the shapes also transform from fish to bird, so he is adding two levels of difficulty.”

Defying conventions of composition

In the book Visions of Symmetry: Notebooks, Periodic Drawings, and Related Work of M.C. Escher, mathematician Doris Schattschneider refers to Escher’s prnts that include such transformations as picture stories. In her opinion works such as the Metamorphosis series (not part of the NGC exhibition) defy the conventions of composition. I asked Del Re for her take on this idea.

“It is on point with Escher because he is about transformation,” says Del Re. “In a regular composition you have to focus on one part of a story line, but I don’t think this is challenging enough for Escher…I think you can see that in other works as well. There is always some kind of movement in it and transformation; those are two key motives of his work. I do think that the Metamorphosis prints epitomize those two concepts. This is not a static moment, showing part of a story or a single figure; it’s one thing changing into another, etc., etc., to the end of the print. Typically, you cannot have this idea of constant evolution in one single image.”

Read part II of this post: “No such thing as too much Escher: Reflections on Escher retrospective”

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