Illusions abound in a new National Gallery of Victoria exhibition featuring Japanese design studio Nendo and Dutch artist MC Escher.
Illusion, surprise and mind-bending wonder abound in a new National Gallery of Victoria exhibition featuring ingenious Japanese design studio Nendo and 20th-century Dutch artist MC Escher. By Cushla Chauhan.
It’s a cool, blustery day in the Hague in the Netherlands, where autumn leaves twirl down pretty streets. But inside the Museum Escher in Het Paleis, a former Dutch royal palace now home a permanent collection of works by Dutch graphic artist MC Escher, it’s warm and cosy, the ideal setting in which to lose myself in art. Right now, I’m staring intently at a woodcut by the famous printmaker. My eyes are unpicking its detail, my brain unravelling its narrative, then suddenly – ping! – it’s that ‘ah-ha’ moment of clarity when the image reveals its surprise. Such is the nature of Escher’s visual enigmas. Still Life and Street (1937), which has held me entranced, juxtaposes two scenes that in the real world don’t logically connect, yet it takes a while to unravel the ruse.
As the master of illusion himself once said: “We adore chaos because we love to produce order.”
Almost half a century after his passing in 1972, Escher is still captivating audiences with his optical illusions and surreal imaginings, and this summer the first major survey of his work will be shown in Australia, a retrospective of more than 150 of his most iconic prints and drawings spanning 1916 to 1969.
Escher x Nendo: Between Two Worlds opens this month at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), not only a showcase of Escher’s work but also a collaboration with award-winning Japanese designer Oki Sato, founder of Tokyo-based design firm Nendo, which has conceived vast immersive spaces within the NGV galleries and a series of objects to feature within those spaces.
An odd pairing at face value – two creators orbiting different epochs, countries, cultures and media – for the NGV, the differences and similarities between Nendo and Escher provide the sort of mad spark to which it is drawn, part of its bold strategy of finding creative ways to bring art and design into dialogue.
“We approached Nendo about whether they’d be interested in responding to Escher’s work and creating an immersive exhibition experience,” explains Cathy Leahy, NGV senior curator, prints and drawings. “They have arranged the exhibition thematically rather than chronologically, so the works are grouped around some key themes that Escher returned to, and have devised a different treatment for each of those spaces in response to that particular category.”
The enduring popularity of Escher’s woodcuts, linocuts, drawings and sketches, many of which have become some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, has seen recent global exhibitions of his work draw record crowds. His mathematically inspired works reveal an ongoing fascination with impossible architectural constructions, twisted perspectives that defy the laws of space and themes such as infinity, tessellations, reflection, metamorphosis and symmetry.
While in the 60s and 70s hippie counterculture connected with what they saw as the ‘trippy’ vibe of Escher’s art, and plagiarised his work for record covers and posters (much to his chagrin), today his images can still be found tacked against classroom walls, tattooed onto the skin of committed fans and, with their otherworldly quality, even inspiring scenes in virtual reality games.
Leahy says his timeless appeal isn’t surprising. “The ingenious nature of his images intrigues people. When you look at them they’re meticulously produced, so there’s this craftsmanship and finish, and they’re quite inventive and often quite playful … there’s a whimsical, humorous element. But then when you look more closely at some of his compositions you think: ‘There’s something else going on here, something that doesn’t quite add up.’ So I think it’s that element of a kind of reality that’s not quite the reality.”
Back in the Hague, Benno Tempel, director of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which displays highlights of its Escher collection at the Escher Museum, posits that the graphic artist taps something quite primal in the human psyche. “I think his art addresses something very basic in human beings. The deception of the eye and the magic of the optical illusions he creates somehow triggers in mankind a fascination with the impossible.”
Born in 1898 in the Netherlands, the son of a civil engineer, Escher showed interest in art at an early age. As a young man he pursued architecture but, encouraged by his teacher, switched to graphic arts. Following his studies, he journeyed to Italy, a country he fell in love with, and like a pioneering Rough Guide backpacker, he would venture to remote villages, sketching the landscape and relishing the extremes of perspective offered by mountainous terrain before transforming his drawings into prints.
Escher continued to travel extensively throughout Europe during his career, expressing his love of the natural world and his ability to see it through the prism of mathematics. Islamic art too, proved impactful, giving rise to tessellations such as Regular Division of the Plane No. 105, (right); while Japanese woodblock prints, were also thought to have influenced compositions such as Sky and Water I (1938).
Although during his lifetime Escher was largely dismissed by the art world, which considered his reality-warping images too ornate, he was revered by mathematicians and physicians, who used his drawings to illustrate complex concepts. He found distasteful the mainstream popularity he achieved in the 60s, which claimed his images as part of ‘psychedelic art’, so much so that he famously turned down Rolling Stone Mick Jagger after he asked Escher to design an album cover for Let It Bleed.
Tempel laughs when he says Escher “was not impressed at all by this long-haired guy who was so famous”. But also asserts that he hit on something that resonated with the anti-establishment culture of the 60s. “In his prints he does something that is part of what hippies also experience. They were taking all these drugs that led to trips and we know from various descriptions that there are different phases in these trips and experiences to do with form and colour, and a few of those things also relate to the designs that Escher and other artists use. This doesn’t, of course, mean Escher used drugs himself, but I think he tuned into something hidden in all humans.”
The degree to which Escher felt detached from the beatnik generation, he’d likely have felt connected to Nendo. Though eras apart, the
affinities between the designer and artist’s sensibilities make them complementary collaborators. As Sato points out: “We both like to create things that are a bit tricky that start from a logical point of view or inspiration, and then adapt these ideas into something that can be communicated to a larger audience.”
There’s also their shared meticulous approach to design, playfulness, element of shock or surprise and, in the case of Nendo, a minimalism that favours monochrome on par with Escher’s subdued colour palette.
Certainly Tempel, a custodian of Escher’s work in a sense, is excited to see the outcome. “I think it’s going to be a really great installation,” he enthuses. “The risk with Escher is that an exhibition can become too kitsch. In a lot I’ve seen people try to be ‘Escher-ish’ in the surrounds and space,” he says, cringing. “In this case, though, the conjoining of designer and artist makes sense in a very surprising way. Both are interested in optical illusion and forming perspective and making something that from a certain point of view looks perfectly logical, but when you get closer to it or change the angle from which you look at it, it changes. These two worlds coming together, that’s very powerful.”
Walking through the striking mirrored corridors of Nendo’s Tokyo design studio, the antithesis of the 19th-century palace I’ve recently visited in the Netherlands, Sato leads me to a model of the installation he’s created with his team for the NGV. For the 41-year-old minimalist master (whose studio about 300 projects on the go at once), the NGV invitation was exciting but challenging. “It’s a very strange project because it’s not only our exhibition, we’re not presenting our retrospective work, but it’s not like we’re designing the exhibition for Escher’s work alone either,” says the designer. “We have to present our point of view as well, so it has to become a collaboration, and the idea I had was that since we are showing Escher’s two-dimensional artworks, we would do something in the three-dimensional world, which means large-scale objects and interior designs.”
This objective led to Sato to employ the motif of a house to act as “a sort of main character to guide the visitors through all these different concepts and different stories”. The very simple shape of the house is used as an icon of the space itself and, as well as referencing Escher’s manipulation of patterns, is also a way of creating inventive displays for Escher’s work.
Sato points to the models of the separate environments Nendo has designed, which play with geometry, space and perception. It’s hoped the galleries will encourage viewers to participate physically in the exhibition and engage in the artwork – walking through constructs, facing puzzling perspectives as they enter rooms – in effect, having a sense of “stepping into an Escher work”.
“I need to respect every single artwork but I should not respect it too much, in a way. It’s about how much Nendo it should be how much Escher it should be – the balance is very important,” says Sato.
Within Nendo’s inventive landscape, many of Escher’s most beloved works await discovery, including: Up and down (1947), Drawing hands (1948), Relativity (1953), Waterfall (1961) and his final woodcut, Snakes (1969), which is honoured in a dedicated gallery space.
The NGV is confident this new way of presenting Escher breaks new ground and Leahy is impressed by how mindful and respectful Nendo has been of the Dutch artist’s work. “They’ve understood what some of the drivers are in Escher’s work, so rather than just being a pastiche, they’ve taken that principle and come up with something original themselves. I think people are going to be amazed.”
Escher x Nendo | Between Two Worlds runs from December 2, 2018 to April 7, 2019 at the NGV. For more information, go to www.ngv.vic.gov.au.
In a white gallery space, Nendo’s immersive layout of black metal rods – each displaying an Escher artwork – is dedicated to the themet of space and illusion. Above: Convex and Concave (1955). Below: Regular Division of the Plane No. 105, Pegasus (1959).
Nendo’s zooming house corridor is a 20-metre pathway shaped like the cross-section of a house. With its entrance measuring more than three metres in height, and its end just 55 centimetres high, visitors walking through the house feel like it’s shrinking around them.