A very serious game: the work of M.C. Escher

This is how Escher described his work. Here, Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and curator of the exhibition devoted to Escher, considers the work of this enigmatic artist.

M.C. Escher has the curious distinction of being simultaneously world famous and unknown. World famous in terms of the pictures of upside-down staircases which appear on posters, album covers and Sci-fi books (although people might not know who did them); unknown in terms of his life and the strength and depth of his broader work. It’s not that well known what nationality he was or what the M.C. stand for (answer: Dutch and Maurits Cornelis). Students of geometry and crystallography are more likely to encounter him than students of art history. He wasn’t part of an art movement, had nothing to do with the avant-garde and lived a quiet, apparently uneventful life. He was a one-man art movement who stood outside the main currents of modern art and you won’t find any mention of him in general books on twentieth-century art. He just doesn’t fit in. But maybe that’s why he’s interesting. He’s a bit like Kafka: a complete one-off with an amazing imagination (they also shared a love of dark, labyrinthine worlds) and the technique to match, a category unto himself.

M.C. Escher, Bond of Union, 1956, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. 2015. www.mcescher.com

There are parallels with Surrealism. The links between Escher and René Magritte are obvious – they were born a few months apart in 1898 in neighbouring Belgium and Holland. They both depicted impossible worlds with dead-pan realism, and they both became extremely famous in the 1960s. Oddly, though, they had nothing at all to do with each other. Escher had no contact with the Surrealists, and vice versa: he never met them, never exhibited with them, and never commented on them. Whereas Magritte self-consciously adopted the look and mores of the bourgeois man as a kind of pose, Escher was that bourgeois man. Formal, regulated and organised in mind and manner, he resented fame because it got in the way of his work.

M.C. Escher, Reptiles, 1943, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. Copyright 2015, The M.C. Esche

In the 1960s Escher was one of the most celebrated artists alive, anywhere in the world. His support base was diverse to put it mildly. He was loved by mathematicians who appreciated the rigorous, geometric foundations of his work. At the other end of the spectrum, Escher became a big hit with drug-fuelled Californian hippies, who appreciated the mind-bending character of his work. In the show we have Escher’s copy of an article on him in Rolling Stone magazine, in which Escher is championed as the godfather of psychedelic art and the artist, clearly bemused by this, has put a question-mark in the margin. Escher famously turned down a request from Mick Jagger to design a Rolling Stones album cover; and Stanley Kubrick, who wanted his help on special effects for a film (possibly 2001: A Space Odyssey), also got a negative reply. Escher had heard of neither of them.

M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. Copyright 2015, The M.C. Esche

When I have told people about the show, they have often looked puzzled when I mentioned his name, but as soon as the ‘upside-down staircase’ is mentioned and the memory jogged, their eyes light up, they become animated, and recall posters and books from their teenage years, and films inspired by him (Labyrinth with David Bowie is often mentioned). A few art buffs have looked at me quizzically, as if I have committed an act of betrayal and done something wrong. Escher, you see, has never had much standing in the UK art scene, among museum people, critics and art buffs. If his work is considered at all, it is seen as too popular, too tricky, too graphic, the product of an illustrator rather than an artist. Bizarrely, there seems to be only one work by Escher in a UK public museum, and that’s a print in Glasgow’s university museum, the Hunterian, and it was actually bought by someone in the geography department and it’s not clear how it made its way into the art collection.

If you reside in Britain, there is a fair chance that you have never seen an original work by Escher. You won’t see one in the Tate, the British Museum, the V & A or the great museums of Oxford, Cambridge or, I am sorry to say, Edinburgh. And this will be the first big museum show in Britain. Go to the National Gallery in Washington D.C., the National Gallery of Canada, or the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (which has kindly lent us all the works) and you can see scores of them. It really is odd. I hope people will come to the show, be astonished by the power of his imagination and the brilliance of his technique, and agree.

By Patrick Elliott, 15 June 2015