Puzzles of Precision. M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph on silver-coated wove paper

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph on silver-coated wove paper, 31.8 x 21.4 cm. NGC. Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1989. © 2013 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All Rights Reserved. www.mcescher.com

In 1956, Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher wrote to his son, Arthur, about a recently completed work:

“The odd print I told you about last time is finished, though not yet printed. I don't think I have ever done anything as peculiar in my life. Among other things, it shows a young man looking with interest at a print on the wall of an exhibition that features himself. How can this be? Perhaps I am not far removed from Einstein's curved universe.”

The piece M.C. Escher was ruminating over was his lithograph, Print Gallery: one of 54 works on display at the Judith & Norman ALIX Art Gallery in Sarnia, Ontario until 21 April. That even Escher—today one of the world’s most recognized artists—would be perplexed by his own work is surprising and somewhat endearing, says Gallery curator Lisa Daniels.

“There’s this universal, magical component to his work that intrigues,” she says. “They’re like puzzles. They’re tricking the mind, and they appeal to such a broad range of people. We have as many math teachers bringing their classes in as we do art teachers.”

Escher was fascinated by infinity, math and physics, not to mention light, color and printmaking. Those combined passions led him to create art that is arguably unparalleled for its depth and complexity.

“There’s an obsessiveness about it in terms of mathematical perfection, with a twist to that perfection, trying to perfectly foil it,” Daniels says. “Even the medium of woodblock and mezzotint adds that extra dimension of obsessiveness, because of the detail he goes into. The complexity, for woodblocks, is phenomenal.”

This exhibition includes prints from the National Gallery of Canada’s collection that trace an extraordinary career. Some are Escher’s earliest prints and experimentations with the regular division of a planar surface, while he was studying at the School of Architecture and Ornamental Design in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Others reflect his later success in mastering lithography, etchings and mezzotints.

Daniels says Escher’s broad appeal clinched her decision to have his work as one of the first exhibitions in Sarnia’s new, purpose-built gallery, which opened October 2012.

“Usually you’re at an exhibition, and people sort of slowly graze through and they’re out the door. What I’ve seen is people standing in front of these pieces and slowly following along with their fingers—not touching the work, but trying to make the connections with how the perspective is twisting and turning. They get lost in it.”

While most people are familiar with reproductions of Escher’s work, Daniels says seeing the originals “humanizes” his work.

“When you see the originals, you see the human hand. The reproductions are so precise, you don’t see the human hand. In the originals, you can see a little bit of the evidence that these are not mechanically produced. This is a person drawing them. There’s a depth that is missing in the reproductions.”

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