Maurits Cornelis Escher wanted to capture infinity and cast it onto paper.
To that end, the Dutch graphic artist created lithographs, woodcuts and mezzotints of interlocking reptiles, strange creatures and birds in flight that metamorphosed in and out of each other. He depicted twisted dragons, and ants crawling eternally on a Mobius strip. He created “impossible constructions” that depicted buildings, staircases and spheres that seem geometrically precise yet, upon close inspection, are as surreal as anything by Dali, Bosch or Kafka.
“It can apparently happen that someone . . . can feel ripen in oneself a conscious wish to use his imaginary images to approach infinity as purely and as closely as possible,” Escher wrote in his essay “Approaches to Infinity,” published not long before his death in 1972.
“The Magical World of M.C. Escher,” on exhibit Jan. 26 through March 25 at the Museum of Art – DeLand, includes more than 150 of the artist’s works. The exhibition features not only the Dutchman’s self-described “more or less fantastic pictures” but also his realistic graphic works inspired by trips into the Italian countryside when he lived in Rome from 1923 to 1935.
Born in the Netherlands in 1898, Escher attended the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts from 1919 to 1922, where he quickly abandoned his intention to pursue architecture in order to study graphic arts under Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita.
The European art world was in upheaval – and in thrall – to such radical movements as Cubism with its blatant use of angles and perspective-bending, multiple viewpoints; Dada and its free-for-all hijinks; Surrealism with its embrace of the irrational; and De Stijl (right in Escher’s homeland) with its almost pure use of geometric shapes.
Yet there is no record that the young Escher noticed or had any significant exposure to these artistic explosions. Instead, the course of Escher’s artistic path was forever altered when he visited Granada in Spain in 1922, where he was astonished by the intricate architecture of the 14th-century Moorish palace, Alhambra.
“Escher always wanted to be a graphic artist – he never wanted to be a painter,” says George Bolge, chief executive officer of the Museum of Art – DeLand. “He was always fascinated with the line and how that can describe an object, whereas painters in a sense form the line between volumes of color.”
Indeed, in his essay “Approaches to Infinity,” Escher writes: “No one can draw a line that is not a boundary line. Every line splits a singularity into a plurality. Every closed contour, no matter what its shape, whether a perfect circle or an irregular random form, evokes in addition the notions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and the suggestion of ‘near’ and ‘far away,’ of ‘object’ and ‘background.’ ”
And Escher was fascinated by another sort of line, Bolge notes: “Escher had an analytical mind, and he was concerned with the line between the metaphysical and reality.”
That’s evident in “Magic Mirror,” a 1946 lithograph in which a gaggle of winged dragons circle into and out of a mirror – and thus (seemingly) into two- dimensional reality and back out into three-dimensional reality.
“Waterfall,” a 1961 lithograph, depicts a canal that weaves through an Alhambra-like structure – but the work tricks the viewer’s eye into sensing that the canal’s waters flow upward and back down, perpetually and into infinity.
While Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” and other Cubist paintings astonished viewers with their depiction of multiple viewpoints within one work, they have nothing on such Escher works as “Up and Down” (lithograph, 1947) and “Relativity” (lithograph, 1953).
Escher’s prints “bear witness to his amazement and wonder at the laws of nature which operate in the world around us,” Bolge writes in the exhibition’s sizable catalogue. “By keenly considering and analyzing the observations that he made, Escher ended up in the domain of mathematics even though he had absolutely no training or knowledge in this exact science.
“Escher’s technical mastery is unthinkable, making his most imaginative subjects convincing – sometimes frighteningly so. That his imagination is, to say the least, eccentric, cannot be denied. His work is at once surrealistic, representational and macabre. Escher is mathematician, photographer, architect, and visionary. He is all these things, and more: an artist.”
* “The Magical World of M. C. Escher” will be on exhibit Jan. 27 through March 25, 2018, at the Museum of Art – DeLand Downtown, 100 N. Woodland Blvd., DeLand. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday (special extended hours for the Escher exhibit).
Regular gallery admission is $10, free for museum members and children 12 and younger. Information: 386-734-4371 or moartdeland.org. Special group rates are available by scheduling in advance, contact 386-734-4371 and ask for Pam Coffman, curator of education.
* An opening night reception will be held 5-7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Admission is $20 non-members, free for members. Reservations appreciated.
* A vernissage for “The Magical World of M. C. Escher” will be 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Admission is $50 non-members, $25 members. Reservations are required by calling 386-734-4371.