The amazing world of M.C. Escher

Dr Peter Wright reviews an exhibition of the Dutch graphic artist's work.

As a graduate student in the ‘60s I found Escher prints on the walls of many of my contemporaries and indeed in chemistry, physics, mathematics and other science labs. This was in contrast to the Brueghels, the Leonardos and the Impressionists which adorned the walls of my friends in the arts and humanities. This quiet and unassuming Dutchman, whose work is regarded as little more than a sideshow by art historians, continues to have enormous cultural impact through films, advertising, computer games and even LEGO. Apparently there is only a single work of Escher hanging a in a British gallery, and this exhibition of over 100 prints is the largest ever display of his works in the UK.

Escher has a rather unique connection with the British Psychological Society in that a paper published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1958 so excited his interest that it led to correspondence with the authors (the mathematicians Lionel and Roger Penrose) and was the direct inspiration for several of his works.  Roger Penrose had encountered the art of Escher while attending a conference in Amsterdam, and was particularly excited by the prints House of Stairs and Relativity. Penrose started to design his own ‘problem pictures’, as he called them, and the BJP paper ‘Impossible Objects’ featured a perspective drawing of a   ‘tri-bar’ familiar to thousands of psychology students through Richard Gregory’s book, Eye and Brain. Escher wrote to the Penroses enclosing a print of his Belvedere which he had created years before he read the BJP article and at the bottom of which there is a man holding a cube with similar pedigree  to the impossible triangle. Escher also sent the Penroses a copy of his lithograph Ascending and Descending, inspired by the endless staircase depicted in the Penrose article, together with Waterfall, a reworking of the tri-bar form into a viaduct with a continuously flowing stream of water.

This terrific exhibition will delight fans of science fiction and of computer graphics as well being of particular interest to psychologists. Judging by the footfall in the Edinburgh gallery, Escher’s amazing craftsmanship is evident to all, and continues to have an enduring fascination. The exhibition notes and catalogue indicate an intriguing disparity between his work and his reserved and very private personality. He cut a rather lone furrow in his time, with no connection whatsoever with the flourishing contemporary surrealist movement in art. It is ironic that such a private man became the godfather of psychedelic art, and who turned down offers from Mick Jagger to design a record cover, and who ignored a request by Stanley Kubrick to work on a film exploring the fourth dimension!

Penrose, L. & Penrose, R. (1958). Impossible objects: A special type of visual illusion. British Journal of Psychology, 49, 31-33.

The exhibition is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until 27 September, and then the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 14 October – 17 January 2016.

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