The Amazing World of MC Escher

The name MC Escher is all at once familiar and elusive outside of his native home, the Netherlands. You kind of recognise it, like someone you once knew when you were in primary school, whose name is no longer is as vivid as it once was. And like that, you remember something, someone, but, when you search for an image, nothing appears. You can see a face, but it is featureless.
However vague the name may first appear, the opposite is true of the twentieth century graphic artist’s mind bending works of art – these are images we instantly recognise. They are familiar because time and time again, throughout life, we will have come face to face with one of his concepts, either literally or abstractly (as in the famous scene in the eighties movie Labyrinth).
Most of us will have been introduced to Escher in our childhood, although when and where we can’t recall. Beyond this, as time goes by, his name may fade from the foreground of our mind, but his mystifying, impossible works have left an indelible mark. He is therefore, says the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which is hosting a new show of his work, “one of the great conundrums of modern art.”
“He is an artist whose work is as instantly recognisable as anything by Salvador Dali, yet his name means little to a British audience,” a blurb on the official website of the gallery explains. “Escher was never affiliated to any group, rarely travelling far from his modest home in the Dutch town of Baarn, and focusing exclusively on graphic art. He was a one-man art movement who created some of the most famous and popular images in modern art, yet he remains a complete enigma.”
Made up of over 100 prints and drawings, the exhibition, The Amazing World of MC Escher, offers us an opportunity to get to know the man behind some of the most beguiling images to have been been captured on one of many surfaces (paper, lithographs, woodcuts). The works span his entire career, allowing us to to see how his work developed the more fascinated he became in “the paradoxical nature of art and illusion”.
The retrospective also does well to reinvigorate the debate as to why he still isn’t talked of highly in the art world. As the Telegraph’s resident art critic Alastair Sooke notes, “his output is often denigrated as little more than technically graphic design”. Yet, as the perhaps deliberate reference to Dali suggests, this is parochial. Like the Spanish surrealist, Escher was a dynamic visionary and intellectual.
Take his most seminal work. Of this, the author and Guardian journalist Steven Poole recently commented: “Escher’s greatest pictures are not simply geometric exercises; they marry formal astonishment with a vivid and idiosyncratic vision.” His work reveals a deeper preoccupation with what it means to be human, the complexity of life (as experienced by sentient beings), the universe itself and the idea of eternity.
Ascending and Descending is a perfect example of this. Escher, quoted by Mr Poole, once said of this famous work: “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself.
“An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about ten inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”
Sombre indeed, but revealing nevertheless. This is an amazing show, one that is certain to be as dizzying as it is informative. MC Escher deserves to be better understood and, moreover, better appreciated by the art world. Even if you can’t remember his name at times, he was, without a shadow of doubt, a brilliant, provocative and captivating artist.
The Amazing World of MC Escher at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art runs until September 27th, 2015.
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