‘Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase?’
Extract from The Amazing World of M.C. Escher
Published by National Galleries of Scotland
Maurits Cornelis Escher 1898-1972: A Singular Artist
By Micky Piller
The world-famous prints of Maurits Cornelis Escher were a familiar feature of the childhood and adolescence of many people born after 1950. His works can still be seen in restaurants, teenagers’ bedrooms, doctors’ waiting rooms and classrooms. Yet at the time, the art world was slow to appreciate his woodcuts and lithographs. There was a tendency to regard his prints as technical novelties primarily designed to illustrate mathematical problems.
A couple of years before the period in which Escher’s art came to be admired by the general public, abstract art had been enthusiastically welcomed as the New Art that broke with the ‘mistakes’ of the past. The idea gradually took hold that if, contrary to the spirit of the times, an artist persisted in an allegiance to figurativism, they were deliberately placing themselves outside contemporary art. Escher chose to make prints when everyone believed that art consisted of the broad, painted gesture. And that was seen as old-fashioned. Yet as early as 1951, The Studio, Time and Life magazines all published stories on the artist, introducing him to a US audience. In 1961 E.H. Gombrich wrote about his work – to Escher’s great satisfaction.
There was thus an enormous gap between the recognition Escher received from the public and the lack of appreciation displayed by official bodies. His first large retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague did not take place until he was seventy years old. By then he had sold over 650 prints of a single woodcut: Day and Night, 1938.
Escher knew exactly why his art appealed to the layman:
My subjects are […] often playful. I cannot help mocking all our unwavering certainties. It is, for example, great fun deliberately to confuse two and three dimensions, the plane and space, or to poke fun at gravity.
Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase? Can you be definite that it is impossible to have your cake and eat it?
I ask these seemingly crazy questions first of all of myself (for I am my own first viewer) and then of others who are so good as to come and see my work. It’s pleasing to realise that quite a few people enjoy this sort of playfulness and that they are not afraid to look at the relative nature of rock-hard reality.
Escher made these remarks in 1965 on being awarded a Dutch cultural prize. The quote reveals character traits that can also be seen in his work: humour and a predilection for the unexpected. And at the age of sixty-seven he was still a cheerfully unconventional thinker.
From the mid-1950s onwards Escher was able to live on the income from his work. He was flattered by the many requests he received for lectures and prints, but at the same time complained that he hadn’t enough time to work on new ideas. If a request came for a print that had sold out, he made new copies. He used a small egg spoon made of bone to print woodcuts in his workshop at home, a procedure that demanded time, concentration and peace and quiet. For mezzotints he used a small printing press. He took his litho stones to a professional printer, but always oversaw the whole printing process.
That Escher led an orderly, structured life is clear from his own remarks and those of his eldest son. He spent hours in his workshop and went for a daily walk in the afternoons. Mauk – as Escher was known to friends and family – was often exasperated by visitors who wanted to know the deeper significance of his work: he thought such questions were downright nonsense. He didn’t accede to every request. Mick Jagger wrote him a letter, starting ‘Dear Maurits’ and asking for a print to grace the cover of the Rolling Stones’ new LP. ‘Who is this Jagger person?’ Escher apparently grumbled. It wasn’t such a strange request: there were already LP covers featuring his work. But Escher was by no means unworldly. He followed international political developments and, unlike many Dutch people of his generation, opposed the war in Vietnam.
Escher wanted to portray a clear-cut logic (which he called ‘order’) in his work, an order which he believed underlay the chaos of daily life. His prints can be divided into two large groups: in the first eternity, or time, plays a major role; in the second infinity, or space. Sometimes the two are interwoven and equally important. But more than anything, the effort to inspire amazement was his driving force. As he wrote to his friend Bruno Ernst in 1956: ‘Maybe I focus exclusively on the element of wonder, and therefore I also try to evoke only a sense of wonder in my viewers.’
Books from Scotland is delighted to show you some spreads from The Amazing World of M.C. Escher below.
The Amazing World of M.C. Escher is out now published by National Galleries of Scotland (£19.95, paperback)