Extraordinary Escher

Maurits Cornelius would have had some fun in studying some of the tessellations of my old school, Dulwich College. The floor tiling of the entrance lobby, the widespread use of terracotta ornamentation fitted together with new-found dexterity according to the latest victorian industrial techniques would have given Escher much food for contemplation and design, Instead, the master Dutch artist-draughtsperson, born in 1898 found his first source of inspiration in the islamic tiles of Granada’s Alhambra during a visit there in 1922.

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During a protracted stay in Italy where he met his wife (they married in Viareggio in 1924) Escher became fascinated by the interlocking features of that country’s hill towns. It’s these drawings which form the initial part of the long-overdue exhibition of this master, appropriately shown in the great architect Sir John Soane’s gallery (the world’s first purpose built such edifice) just a short green chain walk from my old school. Escher wanted to become an architect too but the development of his genius lay elsewhere, particularly in his virtuosic use of wood-cutting, lithography and mezzotint.

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It’s astonishing that the UK has only one Escher in its varied collections so the exhibition which will last until January is a must for anyone who can’t visit the main Escher collection in Holland. The artist’s evolution is shown in all its facets from the delightful village scenes in Tuscany (a brilliant evocation of San Gimignano) through Corsica – including Corte which we visited in 2012 – and the wilder parts of Abruzzi and Calabria whose villages he used for that extraordinary four-metre long metamorphosis which is surely the highlight of this exhibition which will go down as my old school Gallery’s ever best attended.

The tessellations and transformations induce a path to geometrical mathematics and such scientific eminences as Coxeter and Penrose became entranced by Escher’s visual theses. In a letter to Coxeter, however (also on show at the gallery) Maurits professes himself a devoted patternist rather than any sort of mathematician in which science he humbly professes ignorance. An intuitive mathematician, therefore, like JS Bach in the musical sphere perhaps? Who remembers that famous book from 1979 which also attaches Godel to these two?

Certainly, the later phases of Escher’s precise vision enters the area of the M√∂bius strip and Penrose’s famous illogically-logical triangle.

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Without these themes the eternal waterfalls and never-ending steps would not have been realised. However, Escher is fully aware of the artistic history of illusion and I am reminded of a wonderful exhibition I saw at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence a few years ago. Did you see that exhibition too? After all, what is pictorial art but a 3-d illusion on a 2-dimensional surface.

The last part of this unmissable exhibition delves into the psychedelic era (I wish they’d said more about op art too) and Escher’s iconic elevation into a father-figure of newly fangled vinyl lp covers.

The fact that Escher has survived all these borrowings from the field of the latest art fads and the current digital explosion is proof that he is, above all, a great artist who truly makes us think about the premises of drawing, design and graphic art in general.

Get to see the man’s genius himself before it’s too late or you will get crowded out by all the other acolytes and curious wishing to admire him at first hand, or with woodcut, lithograph, mezzotint or even original drawing and working sketches.

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