Don’t be embarrassed to find M.C. Escher in the Crocker Art Museum
How curiously the Dutch printmaker M.C. Escher has registered in the American consciousness. From his interlocking figural mosaics evoking backgammon, Islamic tiles, Spy vs. Spy cartoons, and, if you’re straining to see the Dutch lineage, Vermeer’s checkered floors, to his geometrically challenged, perspective- skewing, gravity-defying and otherwise impossible buildings, Escher’s fastidious riffs on the workings of perception have been, well, variously perceived.
When Escher died in 1972, and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art mounted a large exhibition of his work, the astute critic Peter Schjeldahl went to town on it, observing, “His art is archly stylized, yet oddly without style; it calls to mind a lofty personage gravely intent on something silly—say, an Anglican prelate possessed of a passion for hopscotch.” A generation later, that assessment holds, even if it has evolved—say, a stoned, slightly antisocial engineering major possessed of a passion for, like, The Infinite, man.
“In the tradition of the painter’s painter or the poet’s poet, M.C. Escher is the nonartist’s nonartist,” wryly began another review of a 1998 Escher retrospective, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the nonartist’s birth. That review, too, didn’t waste any time getting to the critical consensus of Escher’s imagery as “art for beginners, an esthetic first love, like the poetry of Kahlil Gibran or Pachelbel’s Canon, that is soon outgrown.” It did, however, also note the exhibit’s enormous popularity.
The kindest courtesy critics extend to Escher, it seems, is their regular declination to discuss him at all. Without exhibitions going on, Escher simply doesn’t turn up much in the art magazines. Of course, he has been a fixture in such periodicals as The Mathematical Intelligencer. He is big among crystallographers. Books have been written about Escher’s work, but the two best are by a mathematics professor and a prominent researcher of artificial intelligence, respectively. Doris Schattschneider’s M.C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry remains a notable inclusion in Amazon’s list of “books that are headache inducing,” courtesy of one “Scarysmart,” while Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, self-described as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll,” still seems to make the rounds, whether it actually gets read or not, among boastfully brainiac grad students who once Fun-Taked Escher posters to their dorm-room walls.
Meanwhile, Jane Langton’s 2001 mystery novel, The Escher Twist, features a crystallographer protagonist and embeds clues to a series of murders in various Escher prints—but hasn’t exactly transfixed the public imagination on the order of The Da Vinci Code. The architect Daniel Libeskind, a designer of the new World Trade Center, has often cited Escher’s influence, and maybe it is no coincidence that Libeskind’s ambitious conception of the soaring “Freedom Tower” turned out to be impossible to build. Closer to home, several illustrated pages have been carefully sliced from the oversized Escher books at the Sacramento Public Library. Are we to take him for a guilty pleasure?
The more than 70 works—drawings, woodcuts, engravings and lithographs—on view in M.C. Escher: Rhythm of Illusion, which opens Saturday at the Crocker, may or may not answer the question. “This artist is probably one of the reasons I ended up doing what I do,” admitted Crocker Associate Curator William Breazeale, a prim, circumspect man who is, as it happens, the son of a physicist. By Breazeale’s estimation, Escher, however asymptotically relevant to art history’s timeline, remains ironically popular as a museum attraction because he is “so well-known to a lot of people that don’t go to museums” and, accordingly, “one of the best-recognized print-makers of the 20th century.” Who needed the critical consensus anyway?
“Indeed, [the show] was something of a ‘blockbuster,’” recalled Annette Dixon, curator of prints and drawings at Oregon’s Portland Art Museum, where this exhibition originated in 1999. Of course, the ideas Escher so thoroughly probed in his increasingly unsubtle and self-enclosed formal games were also regular fodder for other artists—cubists, futurists and Dadaists—but, as Dixon explained, “his approach was unique to him. He left no school and had little influence on his contemporaries.”
Which brings up the question of where exactly Escher came from—of his ancestors’ influence on him. “He possessed a profound knowledge of art history, including prints by the old masters,” said Gregory D. Jecmen, assistant curator of the National Gallery’s department of old master prints, who will give an Escher talk at the Crocker next month. Jecmen sees evidence of Rembrandt in Escher’s many reflective self-portraits and of Bruegel in the high panoramic viewpoints of his early landscapes. “While at first glance Escher seems to be outside the traditions of art history,” he said, “in fact, upon closer inspection, he can be placed in the context of the great northern tradition of graphic art.”
So, where the fortress of the fine-arts establishment is concerned, M.C. Escher appears as one of the ladder climbers in his architecturally screwy “Belvedere,” somehow an outsider and an insider at once. Any attempt to see him clearly requires a fluid mastery of perspective.
“He’s a very meditative artist,” said Breazeale. “We’re hoping that this will be a meditative show.”
How could it not? However recognized Escher may be, his deeper mysteries persist. For instance, by what trick of perspective does so exacting and workmanlike a technician, so often critically scorned or ignored, routinely earn praise as a “poet”? Of course, Escher-as-poet is a conceit from people who turn not to Emerson or Whitman for their songs of the sublime, but to someone who can recognize, as the artist himself put it, that “a circular regular division of the plane, logically bordered on all sides by the infinitesimal, is something truly beautiful.” (Escher’s elucidation of this idea occurs in his “Circle Limit” series, inspired by a diagram in a 1957 mathematical article from a researcher of kaleidoscopic patterns.)
Read enough about the man, including his own self-incriminatingly stiff annotations of his work, and you’ll almost want to reevaluate him out of pity. One detail of 1953’s “Relativity” (the idée fixe of countless T-shirts, and at least one Lego recreation) was described thusly: “On the top staircase illustrated here, two people are moving side by side and in the same direction, and yet one of them is going downstairs and the other upstairs,” he wrote. “Contact between them is out of the question because they live in different worlds and therefore can have no knowledge of each other’s existence.” He sounds like the surly veteran of some convoluted role-playing game, perennially peeved by always having to explain the rules to newbies.
If the laws of nature, and of perception, were relative, so was the artist’s maturation. “On the uniformly grey surface of a strip of paper that is being unrolled, a simultaneous development in form and contrast is taking place,” Escher wrote of the almost-but-not-quite whimsical 1955 lithograph “Liberation,” in which triangles become black and white birds “and from there fly off into the world as independent creatures. And so the strip of paper on which they were drawn disappears.” That’s about as liberating as it gets with Escher. Even at his dreamiest and most assured, he never seemed completely at ease. It might have been fascinating, even if in a train-wreck sort of way, to see him try an automatic drawing.
Alas, no such luck. Of “Ascending and Descending,” another lithograph from 1960, and one of the more recognizable depictions of Escher’s faceless, fruitlessly marching staircase climbers, he wrote, “Two recalcitrant individuals refuse, for the time being, to take any part in this exercise. They have no use for it at all, but no doubt sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their nonconformity.” Really, it’s no wonder that 1998 review concluded with the suggestion that Escher’s work had been contaminated by fascism.
Still, regimented drones notwithstanding, as Escher moved from landscapes and still-lifes into more abstract (if on-the-nose) illustrations of mathematical patterns and ideas, his draftsmanship remained consistently extraordinary. If, when it comes to representations of living things, there appears a greater overall affinity for reptiles and insects than for people, at least the reptiles and insects are remarkably detailed. What’s more, as Breazeale observed, greatly understating the matter, “A poster of this really isn’t the same.”
The already validated intention of M.C. Escher: Rhythm of Illusion, Dixon explained, is to “emphasize the process whereby Escher created his prints and thereby contribute to viewers’ understanding of the artist’s great achievement.” But the artist’s real achievement is more ephemeral than his technical mastery. It’s something in the engine of his peculiar endurance, the way his paradoxical stature seems to agree with him. It’s in the fact that he can somehow exist as the Pachelbel of print-making by one unkind estimation and the genuine genius Bach by another more charitable one.
In 2006, one has the impression that Escher will always seem both dated and in vogue, that his imagery will forever be both buffer zone and flashpoint between the relative prejudices of art people and math people. He remains an artist in whose dichotomies and symbioses, as Hofstadter wrote, “oppositions are made into unities on several levels,” even if that means viewers are still left wondering which end is up.