As my bus bumped through the drab prefabricated houses of suburban East Dulwich, a stark contrast between perception of M.C. Escher in the art world and my lacklustre surroundings came to mind.
Why was an artist as influential as he being displayed so far away from the prestige of central London? Why does one have to venture so far to enjoy his work?
This exhibition, some 40 years after his death, is the first time a major collection of his artwork has ever been displayed in the UK.
Escher was never really embraced by the critics of his time: not quite a surrealist, he did his own thing, ‘operating quietly at the fringes of the art world’ and was subsequently subjugated because of it.
This is apparently, and unfairly, as true today as it was in his prime and although Dulwich Picture Gallery is an historic location – the world’s first custom built public art gallery – I feel a more central location was deserving for such an icon of illusion.
The exhibition itself however, is excellent, regardless of location.
Following a successful run at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the display documents a chronology of Escher’s life in a meticulous detail matched only by the work of the man himself.
From his affluent upbringing in Amsterdam right through to his death, the selection of graphics and unseen archive material details not only his art itself, but a biography of the journeys he took and the influences on his composition along the way.
There are pencil drawings of cats and classmates from art school; lithographic Italian landscapes of his formative years; sketches of ancient Islamic tiles that laid down the foundation of his interest in tessellating patterns, later leading to his seminal style ‘the regular division of the plane’.
One proceeds on a journey with Escher, steering through the mathematical geometry of his later work, perfectly accompanied with letters penned by an array of fans from professors to rockstars; the exhibition is truly sensory, traversing through the adaptation and evolution of his style and technique.There seems to be an emphasis on Escher’s mind throughout, and his is one that rearranges reality: his irregular perspective hypnotises the viewer – it is easy to get lost in the scrupulous, painstaking lines and dots, the impossibility of start and finish, warped into one image.
There are classic, acclaimed works of the Dutch artist on display: Relativity and Drawing Hands of course. But lesser known, yet important, pieces like the four metre long Metamorphosis II are a focal point of the gallery.
My choice for the most interesting part of the exhibition has to go to the studies, archive material and tools used by the man – they give you a real sense of just how assiduous and exacting he really was.
The craftsmanship of his work alone is second to none; the maths and artistry is sheer splendour. If the purpose of art is to make one stop, stare, examine and wonder then he fulfils that purpose like no other.
It’s a shame that it has taken so long for his genius to get the platform it deserves in the UK, and despite being shy of fame, I think he’d be grateful it now has.
Escher once said that ‘he who wonders discovers that this in itself is wonder’ and the presentation of his life here is unparalleled in leaving one wondering, staring, and questioning one’s perception of reality.
The Amazing World of M. C. Escher runs from the 14th October 2015 – 17th January 2016, 10am – 5pm daily.
£14 Adult, £13 Senior Citizens, £7.50 Concessions, FREE Children and Members
Thanks to Dulwich Picture Gallery for the usage of the featured image
Also shown in this article is Escher’s Day and Night (February 1938), Woodcut in black and grey, 39.2 x 67.8 cm courtesy of the Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.