The Iron Genie meets Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery
I was thrilled when the Dulwich Picture Gallery requested the loan of my steel harmonograph The Iron Genie for an interactive installation in the gallery in October 2015. It was there to engage audiences of a very special temporary exhibition, “The Amazing World of M.C. Escher“, which runs until the 17th January 2016. I was very gratified to have such an illustrious association for my mathematical sculpture, the more so as it was set up in the main gallery, surrounded by the most breathtaking paintings from the Gallery’s own collections.
Dulwich Picture Gallery was Britain’s first public gallery, designed and built by Sir John Soane and opened in 1817. It is situated south of the main city of London in Dulwich Park and Sports Grounds, and houses its own fine collection of paintings. It was quite awesome setting up the sculpture and periodically gazing at old masters, like the vast canvas of Samson and Delilah by Van Dyck, only feet away. The gallery’s elegant mausoleum was just behind me, with The Amazing World of M.C. Escher installed in the temporary galleries adjoining it.
The exhibition is the first major U.K. retrospective of M.C. Escher, curated at the National Galleries of Scotland in association with the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands. It is very ambitious in its scope, covering every stage of Escher’s creative output from his earliest experiments with woodblock printing and lithography in the 1920s to his last works in the 1960s.
Like most people, I have grown up with an awareness of Escher’s most famous prints, and I have never failed to be intrigued by his extraordinary vision. But seeing the exhibition was a revelation on many counts. Getting close to the original prints made me realize how much of his dazzling craftsmanship gets lost in endless reproduction, and how much of the rigorous, methodical work that went behind the creation of each image is under-appreciated.
The underlying themes of the Eternity and Infinity unite Maurits Cornelis Escher’s vast body of work, and the exhibition traces the chronological development of his exploration of these two themes, from his early experiments with tessellations at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts at Haarlem where he completed his studies is 1922, to his last studies of hyperbolic geometry and his Circle Limit series that culminated in the extraordinary Snakes print in 1969. This was his last work before he died in 1972.
Escher’s natural gifts as a draughtsman coupled with his mastery in printmaking enabled him to manipulate the image and the medium using geometry and techniques of atmospheric perspective. It is the achievement of the latter that I found so astounding when looking at the original woodcuts and lithographs. His mastery of mark-making in both media, the subtle gradations of tone, and the ingenious visual devices he invented to express distance, were only apparent to me in experiencing the visceral reality of the original prints.
I have chosen to show this little known lithograph, Phosphorescent Sea, because it is almost a textbook study of the subtle texturing and tone that he was able to achieve in this immensely difficult medium. Contrast and Order (above) is also a stone lithograph. His method was to render the entire composition in a highly detailed pencil drawing, and then to copy the image faithfully onto the limestone block using a variety of mark-making techniques to enhance and enrich the range of shades. I cannot imagine how long the process took him!
During the period of his early married life in the 1920s, Escher lived and travelled around Italy, and created a series of prints of the undulating Italian landscape. It was during this time that he started to develop the exaggerated perspective viewpoints and spatial distortions for which he is famous. At the same period, inspired by trips to see Islamic tiling patterns at the Alhambra in Spain, he worked on what he called “Regular Divisions of the Plane“ or tessellations.
Perspective and planar division drew Escher deeper into the study of mathematical geometry. Inherent in these disciplines lies the philosophical potential to consider the cosmic themes of space and time, movement and evolution. By the 1950s he came to the attention of the mathematics community, and entered into correspondence with two great mathematicians, Roger Penrose and H.S.M. Coxeter, from whom he sought advice about non-Euclidean geometry. I love the fact that the curators of The Amazing World of M.C. Escher included archives of Escher’s correspondence with them.
Coxeter sent Escher a copy of a paper he delivered at a 1954 conference held by the International Congress of Mathematicians, which included a diagram of a tesselated hyperbolic plane (above). Having attempted to understand how to draw this monster myself, I can fully sympathise with Escher’s request for Coxeter’s help, and his self-depreciating comment that the paper was “…much too learned for a simple, self-made plane pattern-man like me..“ However, he cracked it in the end, and produced his last “Circle Limits“ series in the 1950s and ’60s, of which the most well-known is “Heaven and Hell“.
Through the many archives presented at the exhibition, one is afforded an insight into the man himself. He liked structure, order and simplicity in his life, and preferred to shy away from the public gaze so that he could work in peace. As a young man his tutors considered him “...not enough of a young man with moods and caprices, not enough of … an artist“ – an attitude that continues to perpetuate naive delusions about the characteristics that define an artist. Escher’s passion and playful imagination was channelled through the precision and rigour of his work; that is what gives it such enduring appeal and authority.
Copyright of Images: The images of Escher’s work in this blog post are reproduced courtesy of The M.C. Escher Company The Netherlands via press images provided by the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Amazing World of M.C. Escher. If you want to use images like these, please contact the foundation directly at the link provided.
For further reading, I suggest the exhibition catalogue “The Amazing World of M.C. Escher” ISBN 978 1 906270 88 9
“The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher” by Bruno Ernst is a 2007 Taschen issue of a 1978 classic.
There is also a fantastic online article about Escher and hyperbolic geometry by Professor Thomas Wieting: “Capturing Infinity: The Circle Limit Series of M. C. Escher”