Published  01/12/2023

MC Escher

MC Escher

A blockbuster exhibition takes us into the mind-bending world of the Dutch printmaker. But is it art or sideshow attraction?

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Metamorphosis II, 1939-40 (detail). Woodcut, 19.2 x 389.5 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

Palazzo Bonaparte, Rome
31 October 2023 – 1 April 2024


There are artists, and then there is MC Escher (1898-1972). The Dutch printmaker is inarguably one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. He created a handful of images that have become part of the popular imagination. His Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), in which the bearded artist himself appears gazing into a mirrored globe, has become a mainstay of geometry and philosophy textbook covers. Relativity (1953), which depicts a village with several apparent sources of gravity leading to numerous stairways to nowhere, has been replicated over and over in film, television, animation and video games.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Hand with Reflective Sphere, 1935. Lithograph, 31.8 x 21.3 cm. Collezione Rock J. Walker / Walker Fine Art, USA. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

His influence has reached places art seldom touches. He has been admired by logicians and mathematicians, particularly after a 1954 solo show was staged opposite a maths conference in Amsterdam, introducing the mathematical elite to his strange works. He was also embraced by rock musicians for the trippy, psychedelic potential of his imagery. Escher was not always receptive: when Mick Jagger asked him to design the cover for Let It Bleed. Escher curtly rejected him, signing off: “By the way, please tell Mr Jagger I am not Maurits to him, but / Very sincerely, MC Escher.” More recently, his work has been adapted into Jil Sander cardigans, a 2018 Pearl Jam concert poster, the mind-bending staircases in Korean TV drama Squid Game (2021), and a 2021 advert for the Miele Triflex vacuum cleaner in which footballers alternatively vacuum and shoot balls around an impossible house.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Relativity, 1953. Lithograph, 27.7 x 29.2 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

The art world has been more hesitant. Escher’s first retrospective took place on his 70th birthday in 1968. A few years later, an article in the newspaper Nieuwsblad van het Noorden called his works “of little interest”, “traditional”, “old-fashioned” and “forced”, while conceding that he was popular with the public. Asthe Telegraph critic Alastair Sooke wrote in 2015: “His output is often denigrated as little more than technically accomplished graphic design.” In Britain, there is only one Escher print in a public collection, which was originally bought by the University of Glasgow s geography scholars and later moved to its Hunterian Art Gallery.

When he has been let into institutions, it has been seen as something of a crowd-puller, even a novelty act. A recent exhibition at the splendid Kunstmuseum Den Haag placed his prints in life-size recreations of their warped landscapes. It was discovered in 2015 that many of the works exhibited in the same city’s Escher in Het Paleis were, in fact, scanned copies of original prints. If it had been any other artist, the museum might have been forced to advertise itself as a repository of fakes. But as a mere “graphic artist”, Escher is not subject to the same culture of authenticity.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Horsemen, 1946. Woodcut 23.9 x 44.9 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

There is an element of the fairground attraction in the current Escher retrospective at Rome’s Palazzo Bonaparte. There is a room covered in mirrors where you can see yourself reflect into infinity and one with a subtly slanted floor that warps perspective (I wonder how much Escher’s prints inspired contemporary art/fairground hybrids such as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms). You can gaze into a sphere to recreate the famous self-portrait. There are guides to the history of shapes and perspective. Exhibition producer Arthemisia clearly intends its show to educate and entertain crowds of all ages. But the sideshow attractions conceal a biographic and thematic show that, first and foremost, deals with Maurits Cornelis Escher the artist.

Escher was a printmaker of considerable technical talent. He lived in Italy from 1922 until 1935, leaving for Switzerland after his son was forced to wear a fascist youth uniform in school. He travelled extensively around the country. Like many before, he became enchanted with the architecture and landscapes. His prints of this period reveal a knack for delicately capturing beautiful places. One 1933 engraving of Monreale evokes the Sicilian sun in thin lines, light and shadow and graduations of black and white. A lithograph named for the Abruzzo hill village Castrovalva (1930) conveys the majestic undulations of the valley.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Ascending and Descending, 1960. Lithograph, 35.5 x 28.5 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

Concurrently, Escher was also attempting scenes from the imagination. There are robed figures out of Hergé stalking the vaults of a monastery, luminescent dolphins swimming through the night sea and recondite emblems for moral messages. There is a Tower of Babel (1928) that we view from above and a Castle in the Air (1928) that we see from below. Between 1925 and 1926, he worked on a series of woodcuts depicting the biblical Creation. The Second Day, showing the division of the waters, reads like a deconstruction of Hokusai’s Great Wave. Water appears to plume from the sky, above a churning sea. He did not always achieve the same liveliness. The Sixth Day meticulously captures an array of avian and marine life, but it does so with a decorative flatness.

A 1936 trip to Granada transformed Escher’s work. He spent days in the Alhambra sketching the Moorish tiles with their abstract, tessellating patterns. He filled an exercise book with watercolours exploring the different ways a flat surface could be filled with tessellating motifs. But rather than just abstract patterns, he used cats and dogs, crabs and lizards, fish and birds. The woodcut Metamorphosis I (1937) sees Escher begin to stretch this idea to the limits, as an Italian hill town is transformed gradually into cubes and then into a cartoon-like figure.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Stars, 1948. Head woodcut, 32 x 26 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

Escher had arrived. For the next 30 years he would produce a steady stream of mind-bending woodcuts, engravings and lithographs depicting cycles, paradoxes and optical illusions. Many have a delightful whimsy. For me, his finest works are those that use the conventional skills he had honed in Italy. The fingers in Drawing Hands (1948), in which two hands appear to draw each other into existence, feel alive. Although Escher stopped representing scenes from reality, he did continue to depict realistic objects with the verisimilitude of his still-life forebears. Lizards (1943) shows reptilian forms emerge out of a drawing, process in a loop and then jump back into the drain again. The objects they traverse – blocks, a potted plant, a wine jar, a bucket, a dodecahedron – are gracefully rendered, in the style of Northern Renaissance printmaking.

Maurits Cornelis Escher. Mummified priests in Gangi, Sicily, 1932. Lithograph, 20.4 x 27.4 cm. Collezione M.C. Escher Foundation, Paesi Bassi. All M.C. Escher works © 2023 The M.C. Escher Company. All rights reserved.

Escher consciously engaged with the old masters. He adapted figures from Bosch. The mirrored sphere self-portrait could be a 20th-century domestic take on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). And, as the exhibition points out, Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (c1745-50) prefigured the impossible stairways. Like them, Escher tested the boundaries of figurative representation. But was he extending this artistic tradition into the 20th century or simply using them as inspiration for his graphic project?

One way to consider Escher as an artist is to see his work through a historical lens. He lived through the European carnage of the 1930s and 40s. His friend and mentor Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita was a victim of the Holocaust. Is his retreat to a world where mathematical reason stops working a reaction to the collapse of Enlightenment rationality? Perhaps. It is more certainly the case that his timeless world of floating palazzos, dragons and frolicking gnomes belongs to a route not followed by the high art of its time, and yet is no less an expression of its time. It is also the case that Escher developed a new visual language for depicting the fallibility of perception and paradoxes of logic. I am not sure the same could be said of his avant garde contemporaries.

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