MC Escher’s works, beloved of hippies and stars alike, are coming to Australia in a show designed to immerse the visitor in his curious view, writes Bronwyn Watson
In 2011, an astonishing number of people — almost 10,000 a day — streamed through an exhibition in Brazil, making it the world’s most popular show for that year. But the artist featured at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro was not Picasso, Monet, or Dali.
The subject was a maverick. A man whose work has often been dismissed, but whose images are among the most memorable in modern art: Maurits Cornelis Escher. And while his name might not be instantly recognisable, the Dutchman and his work have had an enduring appeal with its playful tricks of optical illusion and intriguing imaginary worlds into which the viewer can project themselves.
His prints and drawings reveal a visual dexterity featuring, for example, staircases to nowhere, impossible architectural structures, birds morphing into fish, armoured worms, reptiles crawling off the page, and water running uphill.
For the first time, these iconic images will be on show in Australia this summer, at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The show will feature an expansive display of 158 prints and drawings, starting with a 1916 portrait of his father, through his early work in Italy in the 1920s and 30s, to his best-known prints, such as Relativity and Night and Day. The exhibition also has his final work, a large elaborate woodblock print, Snakes, created three years before his death in 1972 at the age of 73. The display is also bookended by another key work, Drawing Hands, which depicts two hands seemingly drawing each other into existence.
But there is a curatorial twist to the exhibition. The NGV decided it didn’t want the usual show — people wandering around looking at artworks on the walls. Instead, director Tony Ellwood wanted to forge a link between one of the world’s most prominent artists and one of the world’s leading designers. So he took the unprecedented step of inviting Japanese design studio Nendo, led by chief designer and founder Oki Sato, to conceive the whole look and feel of the exhibition.
As a result, Nendo has created an immersive experience for Escher X Nendo: Between Two Worlds, which will reflect and respond to the artist’s black, white and grey palette. Escher’s optical illusions, manipulation of space and use of shifting perspectives have been utilised to give the exhibition a three-dimensional reality. It’s late autumn in The Hague, seat of the Dutch parliament and home to the UN’s International Court of Justice, and in the historic centre of the city, on leafy boulevard Lange Voorhout, is the Escher in het Paleis museum. The museum’s building, more than 200 years old, was a former winter palace of Queen Mother Emma of The Netherlands between 1901 and 1934. Since then, another three generations of queens — Wilhelmina, Juliana, and Beatrix — have used it as their working palace, up until 1984.
Now, however, it is dedicated entirely to highlighting MC Escher. The work on display is drawn from the collection of its larger, sister museum, also in The Hague, the Gemeentemuseum, which has the world’s largest public collection of Escher’s work and has lent all the work for the NGV exhibition.
At Escher in het Paleis, in a room filled with impressive pieces of royal silverware, the director of both museums, Benno Tempel, says working with the NGV and Nendo is a “beautiful opportunity”.
“Escher has never shown in Australia, so I was really enthusiastic when the NGV suggested the possibility of working together,” he says. “But what made me more happy was their idea of working with Nendo. To be honest, I’d never thought of it, but I do think it is an exciting idea to ask a designer to do the art direction of the exhibition. It is a perfect combination.
“What often happens with Escher exhibitions is a horrible thing. People start to make Escheresque design, which turns out to be kitsch and ugly, and it doesn’t do right by the artist. But the NGV has asked a very professional and good-quality artist designer to come up with the design.
“So, what you will see is somebody making installations to host the artwork of Escher but at the same time adding their own designs to it, and I think this is much more sophisticated. It’s about optical illusion, it’s about impossibility in constructions, it’s about playing with the viewer and at the same time leading the viewer though the exhibition. I think it is a very clever idea and it will give us a new insight into Escher.”
Across town, at the Gemeentemuseum, the co-ordinator of loans collections Frans Peterse dons white gloves and pulls out prints, drawings, and family photographs, drawn from the museum’s large Escher archive. There are examples of his well-known prints and drawings, but also LP album covers inspired by Escher’s work and examples of publications where his prints have been reproduced, such as a 1960s counter-culture newspaper and a 1968 Dutch railway magazine. Peterse says Escher was very particular about the type of paper he used, Japanese paper, which has a very soft texture and a creamy colour. This creates a contrast to the dark-black velvet ink, which is not evident when seeing the work in reproduction.
Peterse, who oversaw the loans to Melbourne, says the NGV show is one of the largest in terms of loans. “It is unique that Melbourne has so many of the tessellation prints because we don’t send them very often for exhibitions because of the fragility of the materials,” he says. “And a number of drawings on loan to Melbourne are not normally even on display at The Hague because of their fragility.”
So why send them? “Because Melbourne was persuasive,” he replies with a laugh. Although Escher, who was born in 1898 in Leeuwarden in The Netherlands, might not have originally enraptured art historians, he certainly seemed to captivate virtually everyone else. It was in the 1960s that his work really started to go viral. Posters and calendars of his visual conundrums decorated countless bed-
M.C. Escher’s Relativity