No such thing as too much Escher: Reflections on Escher retrospective, part II

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk


The Italian landscape prints at the M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Second visit

About a week after speaking with Sonia Del Re, I made my way back to the exhibition to see whether what I have learned affected my perception of Escher’s art.

I started with the artist’s early works, the Italian landscapes, and slowly made my way through the rest of the exhibition, taking time to absorb the variety of shapes and what was happening to them. Just like Del Re pointed out, the shapes were often changing, getting bigger or smaller, or morphing into other forms. I tried not to think about it, just let myself look and be with the prints.

After reaching the last print, I started again from the beginning, and that’s when I realized I was seeing the landscapes in a different way. Somehow these prints no longer looked to me like a separate group, disconnected from the later works. I now could see in them glimpses of lines from the prints that followed. I sensed the potential for transformation from one section of a composition to the next, as if I was looking at Escher’s ideas that he chose not to materialize just yet.

When I tried taking notes, I found it hard to express these vague impressions, yet I felt joy and satisfaction for just having noticed these connections, my own art appreciation discovery, so unexpected, so soon.

Third visit

The third visit almost didn’t happen because I nearly talked myself out of it. What could I possibly see that I haven’t seen already? But having been surprised by my own insight on occasion, the temptation to see what might follow was too strong to resist. So, I made my way to the gallery for its final hour of the day. It was a compromise forced on me by my skeptical self who didn’t want to waste too much time in the event that my supply of insight has dried out.

There was no reason to worry. The landscapes revealed themselves in even greater detail. I was not only sensing the connections between the earlier and later works, I was seeing specific areas where the artist could have incorporated pieces of the later works in the landscapes, or in turn, how the landscapes may have inspired the later mathematical designs.

My mind seemed to be superimposing the plane division and the impossible spaces on the landscapes and vice versa, as if it wanted to continue Escher’s thoughts. The landscapes ceased to be static images; instead, they were buzzing with the possibility of becoming a flock of geese or a school of fish or stairs that go over and under.

“Body of work” comes together

The third visit turned out to be a big step in my quest to understand art, and I have a new appreciation for the phrase “a body of work”. I see in Escher’s art elements that link a boy who carefully selected shapes, quantity and sizes of cheese slices to cover precisely a piece of bread at breakfast or supper (a story about Escher as a boy mentioned in Visions of Symmetry) to the man obsessed with the division of plane and impossible spaces. It all comes together now.

As fulfilling as this visit turned out to be, two more surprises were waiting for me. When I was done digging for my own insights, I read the exhibition notes. I discovered that the information they conveyed was more meaningful to me now than similar notes in the past. After engaging with Escher’s art so deeply, I was able to consider the facts and opinions presented from the perspective of my own fulfilling experience.

When the hour was over and the gallery was closing, I shared my second surprise with one of the guards. “This is my third time here,” I said, “and I just realized how much I still haven’t seen.”

I don’t think there is such a thing as too many visits to one exhibition, at least not when the body of work is of such depth as that of Escher’s.

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