Our summer 2015 exhibition The Amazing World of M.C. Escher closed on 27 September. It was one of the most popular shows we’ve ever done at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Over 53,000 people saw it. We had extended opening hours over the last three days. Thanks to the wonders of Social Media, word spread rapidly and we were packed on those days, with a queue stretching 100 metres out onto the lawn. On the last, gloriously sunny day, more than 1,700 people saw the show – a record visitor number for any one day at the Gallery.
I have never been involved in an exhibition that has been greeted with such warm enthusiasm from our visitors. It has been a pleasure wandering around the rooms, seeing people transfixed by the works, and jostling to see them and get closer and discuss them with their friends. Not only did we have a lot of visitors, but they stayed a long time – and often came back for a second look. At the end of all our shows there’s a visitor comments book, and for a show lasting three months, you’d expect maybe two or three of these books to get filled up. We have eight Escher comments books.
He is an artist anyone from about three years old upwards can enjoy. And you don’t have to know much about art to appreciate his work; you don’t need to know about Impressionism or Cubism or Abstract art. You could see that he would go down well in the Far East, where impeccable technique is prized; or in South America, where he could be seen in the tradition of Magic Realism. In Europe, he’s seen as a sort of Surrealist, although in fact he had nothing to do with the group. Mathematicians love his grasp of geometry; hippies love his weird logic; printmakers love his unbelievably precise technique; children like the animals.
In some quarters, his popularity is seen as a sort of proof of his low standing (this has been the first major show of his work in Britain and there is only one print by him in a UK institution). I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people in the museum world. One said that he hadn’t seen it, but he imagined his young sons would have liked it. Another, when the subject of Escher cropped up, asked if we could talk about ‘something more serious’ instead. One critic wished that the show had been more ‘vulgar’. The thing is, there is no artist more serious than M.C. Escher. We could have had bendy mirrors and day-glo wall colours but I think Escher deserves better than that. There is an essay by his son, George, who talks about Escher’s obsession with detail, that he could go weeks, shut in his studio, wrestling with intricate problems: ‘He demanded complete quiet and privacy. The studio door was closed to all visitors, including his family, and locked at night. If he had to leave the room, he covered his sketches.’ That was so that no-one could see them through the garden window.
Escher spoke about the months of pain and anguish one work caused him, and the fact that nobody would have a clue how difficult it was to make. His works do in fact have something inevitable about them, as if the solution he found was somehow obvious – but of course there are scores of drawings and mathematical diagrams behind each one. Some took him years to resolve. A doctor who collects his work told me without hesitation that he would now be classed as ‘high level autistic’. It is no surprise that his wife eventually left him, after forty years of marriage. With some shows, once it is over you skip happily onto the next one. Not with Escher. I miss him badly already.