When we look at an artist’s work, we always assume we are the intended recipient of whatever message the artist wants to convey. Picasso, Dalí and a myriad of other artists provoke us to look at their work with the intention of letting our imagination take over.
Not with M.C. Escher.
Every exhibition of his work attracts crowds mesmerized by his mind-bending images. Endless waterfalls, inside-outside buildings, perpetual staircases, to name a few. We all assume he is an artist bent on messing up with our brains, making us believe the unbelievable or preventing us from seeing the impossibility lying in front of our eyes.
The truth is that Escher did that for his own satisfaction, and he didn’t particularly care about his audience. The proof? For most of his career he was relatively unknown and had no expectations of selling many prints, sometimes printing editions of as few as 12 copies. Yet each work required hundreds of hours of research. A mathematician would present him with a visual paradox and he would immediately go back to his studio and try to figure out a way to use it in an image.
He would sometimes complain to his sons that he was working on a project and he wasn’t sure anybody would realize the amount of effort needed to achieve his final result. The project was not to produce a print like "Waterfall"; the project was to understand the paradox and how to come up with a way to use it for his own satisfaction. He was also compelled to develop techniques nobody was expected to notice, like "Whirlpools" — for which he used one invertible woodblock when two would do the trick much easier — or his father’s portrait with his own signature not inverted, as it should be in a lithograph.
Toward the end of his career Escher’s popularity grew a bit, but he never succumbed to it as many of his peers, like Picasso and Dalí, did. Instead he just made additional editions of his previous prints. The reason is that he did not want to be distracted from his two current projects: "Metamorphosis III" and his last work, "Snakes." "Metamorphosis III" was in fact an experiment to prove that he could insert woodblocks into his previous work, "Metamorphosis II," without disrupting its continuity (and making it excessively long!). "Snakes" was an exercise in craftsmanship in multiple levels.
He would also act as his own printer, not only signing his works but also writing “eigendruk” (by my own hand) in order to make sure the imperfect prints would never see the light of day.
I believe that he himself would be mesmerized by the crowds his exhibitions draw, and maybe we would notice a smile behind his usually taciturn face.
Enjoy over 100 of M.C. Escher’s works now on view at The World Chess Hall of Fame in the "M.C. Escher: Infinite Variations" exhibition. In addition to the work exhibited at the World Chess Hall of Fame, 35 other pieces from this collection are on display at the St. Louis University Museum of Art.
Paul is the founder of The Herakleidon Museum and its Annex in Athens, Greece, exhibiting many collections — some of which belong to the founding family, like the current Escher collection on exhibit at the WCHOF.