Sunday, January 24, 2010

Art review: Escher retrospective fascinates, overwhelms

Rind (1955), woodcut by M.C. Escher.

By Gretel Sarmiento

A young man stands looking at a picture of a ship in the harbor of a small town with its little turrets, cupolas and flat stone roofs, upon one of which sits a boy, relaxing.

Two floors below him a woman gazes out of the window from her apartment, which sits directly above a picture gallery, where a young man stands looking at a picture of a ship in the harbor of a small town.

This is Print Gallery, by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). The Dutch graphic artist (known by his initials as M.C.) was never an architect or photographer, nor was he a mathematician or philosopher.

But he became all of the above for works like this, precisely drawn riddling images that have become hugely popular, in some cases even iconic, all over the world. Newly opened at the Boca Raton Museum of Art is what organizers say is the largest exhibit of Escher’s work ever assembled in the United States, not so much an exhibition as an “invasion,” according to curator Rock J. Walker.

Hand With Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph by M.C. Escher.

The exhibit, formally called Marc Bell Presents: The Magical World of M.C. Escher, is named for Bell, a Boca Raton-based entrepreneur who owns Penthouse magazine, a network of adult social-networking sites, and has won two producer Tony awards (for Jersey Boys and August: Osage County). He joined forces with Walker, who owns the second-largest collection of Escher works in the world, to present the exhibition.

On display through April 11 are hundreds of Escher's original artworks dating from 1919 to 1969, including about 70 drawings, studio furniture, memorabilia and more than 250 woodcuts, lithographs and mezzotints. Keep moving. Look around. Because the next print is more fascinating than the one before.

And if you walk out or skip a room, you might just miss the reason why you came in the first place -- or why you'll remember Escher forever.

The exhibit is divided into ten sections, starting with Early Prints and Drawings. Here is the first of many works to consider reflection and symmetry as well as duality of black and white and good and evil: Scapegoat. It is one of a series of woodcuts Escher created for a friend's booklet entitled Flor de Pascua (Flowers of Easter). He was only 23 when he made it. Notice the large hole drilled into the top left. That's the printing block, canceled. You see it here for the first time. The artist made sure his work wasn't reproduced.

Day and Night (1938), woodcut by M.C. Escher.

The ascending and descending up-and-down theme that appeared in 1938 with his first great lithograph Cycle is spotted here on the 1930 Street in Scanno, one of only three large-format Italian lithographs Escher created. Scanno is set in a village. A woman is seen knitting surrounded by stones and multiple stairways leading who knows where.

Cycle, in turn, sees a smiling boy running down steps unaware of his fate. In a few more steps he turns into marble and becomes one with the tile ground and the building. That brief detour before reaching the Italian landscapes? Take it. It's bound to surprise you, brighten your day or, if you feel as the artist did, disturb you.

"The hippies of San Francisco continue to print my work illegally," Escher wrote in 1969. He was referring to the vintage blacklight posters that publishers in San Francisco and Chicago had managed to make from his work. Glowing in this dark room under ultraviolet light are 14 of his works, including Dream, Spheres and Inside St. Peter's. Oh, it gets cooler.

Details aside, the neat thing about Escher's work is that it involves us, the spectators, a great deal. His works are fascinating, but ultimately we decide whether the water in Waterfall runs downhill or uphill and whether the habitants in High and Low can ever meet. If in Sky and Water the eye focuses on the light spaces, we see fish. Focus on the black and we see birds.

Inside St. Peter's (1935), wood engraving by M.C. Escher.

Even Dream, which is not as tricky visually, can't resist in inviting us to participate. Is the bishop dreaming about a praying locust or is the entire image the dream of the artist? We decide. And very few notice the Big Dipper on his 1933 Phosphorescent Sea lithograph. Hint: watch for the tiny white dots on the dark gray sky.

No other piece reflects the exactness of his work as well as Smaller and Smaller, a 1956 woodcut and wood engraving. This is the most detailed of all his prints. To obtain this ridiculously explicit precision he used special lighting, high-powered magnification and minute tools. No wonder walking through the exhibit we get the feeling Escher must have been a very serious, strict person.

To achieve this level of artistry, to nail each line and each dot, each step of the creating process ought to have been taken seriously. No mistakes could be afforded. Escher drew his designs onto specially prepared blocks of German limestone using lithographs pencils. A master lithographer would help the artist first wet the stone evenly, then apply ink and finally print it slowly under tremendous pressure of a large roller press. Escher inspected the finished lithographs and destroyed any that failed to meet his standards.

Reptiles (1943), lithograph by M.C. Escher.

All but 10 of his stones were destroyed following printing -- he would cancel them by scratching an X so his work couldn't be reproduced. Two of those stones are here on exhibit: one of the Convex and Concave lithograph and the other one of Three Worlds. Looking at them is even better than looking at the end results. The same happens when looking at the woodblocks for Owl and Old Olive Tree. We think of pieces of wood going through surgery, autopsy or labor. Theirs is a necessary pain to give birth to unbelievable art. We can imagine Escher then as a doctor, a surgeon.

Others like Walker prefer to call him the Einstein of the art world: the bridge between art and science. And not only that. A storyteller as well. Take Reptiles or, better yet, Encounter, one of his masterpieces of graphic storytelling, which depicts the meeting of a happy optimist (in white) and a cautious pessimist (in black). The pessimist keeps his finger raised as if giving a warning while the optimist approaches him cheerfully. Eventually they shake hands. One wonders what conversation they'll be having later on.

Magic Mirror (1946), lithograph by M.C. Escher.

This and his "impossible buildings" works -- Waterfall, Ascending and Descending and Belvedere -- are evidence of the artist's own transformation. After 1936 Escher abandoned reality as the main source of inspiration and fed his art from his imagination. Judging by the works that followed, his was an extraordinary mind, busy with not just with inconceivable constructions but the regular division of the plane, rings, spirals, mirror images, and the conflict between the flat and the spatial. He couldn't have enough. Realistically speaking, we can.

No gallery room disappoints here, but after a while even Escher starts to look repetitive and then it's all up to curiosity. As fantastic as he is, the success of the exhibit has more to do with how much you think you know of him as it does his skill.

Snakes (1969), woodcut by M.C. Escher.

If you are an Escher expert, you'll be looking for your favorites. If you know little, you'll wonder what comes next. If you are in the middle, you'll think him amazing whether you make it to the last print, Snakes, or leave halfway through.

If by the end of the exhibit you feel saturated, even a bit dizzy, don't feel bad. Be proud, feel cool, smarter: You have just witnessed Escher in all his glory. "Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible,” he wrote. “I think it's in my basement ... let me go upstairs and check."

Cocky. Yes.

But can you blame him?

Gretel Sarmiento is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Marc Bell Presents: The Magical World of M.C. Escher can be seen through April 11 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. On the first Wednesday of each month it is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 561-392-2500 or visit

Drawing Hands (1948), lithograph by M.C. Escher.


Anonymous said...

Holes were drilled in woodblocks and lithographic stones crossed AFTER the artist's death, not because the artist did not want others to make copies. On the contrary, Escher reprinted many of his lithographs during his lifetime as more people were demanding more copies of his most famous works.

Anonymous said...

The "Spacegoat" is actually titled "Scapegoat", but "Spacegoat" is not bad!

Greg Stepanich said...

Ouch! Thanks for pointing that out.

'Spacegoat' does raise interesting ideas, though. Almost sounds like a cutting-edge sci-fi series about a rogue interstellar animal-cloning outfit.

It's been corrected, and thanks again.