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MC Illusion

Written by 
Tresca Weinstein
The Berkshire Museum’s M.C. Escher exhibition looks at the artist from a new angle


When you see fish on display at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, you’re usually looking at happily swimming specimens in the downstairs aquarium or perhaps a skeleton in one of the museum’s natural history exhibits. But the fish on view through May 22 in the museum’s current show, M.C. Escher: Seeing the Unseen, are not and never were alive. They are rare specimens, however—a collection of handcut wooden blocks that Escher used to print Fish and Skates, one of his famous metamorphosis works, in which one type of creature or object gradually, almost magically, evolves into something entirely different.
“In a way, Escher is a poster-child artist for Berkshire Museum, because he’s so involved with the natural world, with all these whimsical birds and fishes and lizards that he fits together like jigsaw puzzles,” says exhibition curator Maria Mingalone, the museum’s interim executive director. On a winter afternoon not long before the exhibit opened in January, Mingalone showed a visitor the delicately carved wooden pieces, each drilled with a hole that Escher made after finishing the print edition, ensuring that they could not be used again.
Sparked by Doris Schattschneider’s comprehensive tome M.C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry, which she encountered at a friend’s dinner party, Mingalone took a year to put the show together, gathering the majority of the work from the extensive John D. Merriam collection at the Boston Public Library, as well as from two private collectors, Jeffrey Price and Rock J. Walker. Filling 4,350 square feet of gallery space, the exhibition features many of Mauritis Cornelius Escher’s best-known works, including his final masterpiece, Ringsnakes (1969), a chain of linked rings and serpents; the mezzotint Eye (1946)—a self-portrait of the artist’s eye, with a skull mirrored in the pupil; and three reflection pieces, Three Worlds (1955), Puddle (1952), and Rippled Surface (1950). But the show also brings to light rarely seen materials: two long scrolls; a print on silk (one of only thirteen Escher textile prints) and the woodblocks used to create it; the exquisitely detailed woodblock and 1934 print of Old Olive Tree; preliminary drawings; watercolors; early Italian landscapes; studies of insects; and a pencil set, perspective graph, and triangle ruler used by the artist.
“What makes this exhibition distinct from most Escher exhibitions is the presence of unique work—the drawings, the silk print, the woodblocks—[illustrating] the process that Escher went through to achieve the final print,” says collector Michael S. Sachs, who acquired the bulk of Escher’s estate in 1980, after the artist’s death in 1972 at age seventy-four.
Before carving a wood engraving, Escher drew multiple studies. He worked on some pieces for months. Once the block was completed, he sometimes took an entire day to perfect a single print, producing editions that numbered between a dozen and several hundred. Because they were sold for as little as five dollars each up until the late nineteen-sixties, prints in excellent condition are relatively rare. “What happens when you buy a print for five dollars is you don’t treat it well,” Sachs explains. “The vast majority of Escher prints have either been lost or dramatically degraded.”
Seeing the Unseen also looks at the permanent mark Escher made on design across multiple mediums. His influence, direct and indirect, is everywhere, from the dream architecture of the film Inception, which recalls Escher’s “impossible structures,” to the July 5, 2010, cover of the New Yorker, featuring Bob Staake’s After Escher: Gulf Sky and Water, a response to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
“I thought it was really important to show the full breadth of the impact he made on popular culture,” says Mingalone, who created a section of the exhibit devoted to objects inspired by Escher’s distinctive style—black-light posters, T-shirts, album covers, puzzles, even Japanese vending-machine trinkets, many from the collection of Jeffrey Price of Norwalk, Connecticut. Interactive stations invite viewers to assemble puzzles, complete patterns, and try their hand at drawing specimens from nature.
The show also features lesser-known representational work from early in Escher’s career, when the Netherlands native spent about a decade in Italy, from 1924 to 1935. “He was so passionate about that landscape, about the light, about the seaside, that it was enough for him to experiment and create this body of work just around that subject,” says the petite, forty-something Mingalone, whose enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. “You can see his passion and his painstaking attention to detail in representing what he’s seeing around him. But then he has a radical departure from that.”
With the rise of Fascism, Escher and his wife, Jetta Umiker, left Italy, and he began to pursue a fascination with geometric patterns, the seeds of which had been planted during two visits to the Alhambra, a fourteenth-century Moorish castle in Granada, Spain, decorated with symmetrically patterned tiles. “He gets pretty much obsessed with working out the geometrics of the tiles’ patterning and how he can create figures that fit into those geometries,” Mingalone says. “It’s from that point forward that he moves into expressing the internal world of his mind and his own imagination, and becomes very much a thinking artist, like Leonardo da Vinci, who’s working out ideas. Once he figured out an idea, he would move on to the next one, so it’s not really in the tradition of art for art’s sake.”
Today it would take a math major with a computer just a few minutes, perhaps even seconds, to cover the ground Escher trod via trial and error, sometimes making dozens of sketches in search of a spatial solution for one of his intricate tessellations. An indifferent student (he failed his high-school exams and quickly switched from architecture to graphic design after enrolling in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem), Escher became an icon of sorts for experts far outside his field.
“Escher’s earliest audience was crystallographers, electrical engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists—he was one of the key influencers of the twentieth century, like Picasso, like [Alexander] Calder,” says Rock J. Walker, who has the second largest private collection of Escher’s work and mounted the most comprehensive Escher exhibition yet at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in 2010. “I like to say that Escher helped pave the information superhighway, with a pencil and a sheet of paper.”
Escher drew on the principles of mathematician Roger Penrose’s “impossible triangle” to design Waterfall, in which the water appears to flow uphill; his Print Gallery uses the Droste effect, named for the chocolate box that features repeating images that seem to recede into infinity.
“He loved noodling around with the laws of the universe,” Mingalone says. “Some of his work deals with really big issues, like infinity, or space and time. In his later, architectural pieces, he’s recreating what appear to be spatial, dimensional environments, but they’re on a two-dimensional plane, so they’re an illusion of an illusion. He’s not only in the game to trick your eye; he’s in the game to trick your eye while making note of the fact that he’s doing it.” Perhaps the best-known example of this playful artifice is the 1943 lithograph Reptiles, in which lizards climb out of a sketchbook page, become “three-dimensional” as they crawl through the space, and then re-enter the two-dimensional plane.
“The flat shape irritates me,” Escher once said. “I feel like telling my objects, you are too fictitious, lying there next to each other static and frozen: do something, come off the paper and show me what you are capable of! So I made them come out of the plane.”
While the scientific community embraced Escher, the art world considered him a bit of an outsider. It really wasn’t until 1954, when there was a major exhibit of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, that he was launched into the public eye. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, a lot of his work was admired but also pirated, in posters and album covers—he was absorbed into the counterculture in a way that stigmatized him in the art world. (The Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones were big fans; Mick Jagger wrote to the artist in 1969 requesting a print for an album cover—a request that Escher coolly refused.) Escher never considered himself a fine artist—he was “heart and soul a graphic artist,” he said—even when he began to achieve recognition for his precise and beautiful printmaking, which Mingalone compares to that of European masters such as Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer.
Paging carefully through layers of the thin, almost translucent paper on which Escher printed, Mingalone reveals one breathtaking work after another. Up close, the original works possess an immediacy and impact that goes beyond their almost digital precision. Intricate patterns shrink gradually to infinitesimal size, almost too small to see, let alone imagine carving.
Technically impressive as they are, Escher’s works are never cold. In their pleasing symmetry and winking charm, they feel familiar, almost reassuring in their mind-bending logic, even as they fascinate. Escher’s work, Sachs says, addresses the basic concerns of the twentieth century, the breakdown of traditional social orders and connections. In the artist’s words, “I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, and not in a formless chaos, as it sometimes seems.” BL
Tresca Weinstein is a contributing editor to Berkshire Living. She often writes about visual art for the magazine, most recently on the Picasso/Degas and Manet/Baskin exhibitions at The Clark.
M.C. Escher: Seeing the Unseen
Through May 22
Berkshire Museum
Pittsfield, Massachusetts


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