The works of a Dutch graphic artist born in the 19th century still have the power to captivate the mind.
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The history building at Baylor University, in which I’ve worked lo these many years, is being remodeled. Consequently, the history faculty has undergone a departmental diaspora across the campus. I myself have the great good fortune to have a temporary office in one of the music buildings but not everyone is so lucky.
We’re also teaching in different buildings, some of whose rooms it’s safe to say have never heard a history class. I’m teaching a couple of classes in the math building, where there are no maps. But, on the wall instead, there’s an unexpected series of etchings from a very well-known graphic artist, much of whose work has a vaguely mathematical aura about it. His name is M. C. Escher and his distinct art encompassed optical illusion and impossible physical structures that draw in the eye and captivate the brain.
Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in the Netherlands in the summer of 1898. His father was a civil engineer, and from an early age he loved to draw. From 1919 to 1922 he was a student at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts but he was never a particularly good student. From 1922 to 1924 he toured Italy and Spain and, in the latter, became fascinated with Islamic mosaics that he saw that featured an artistic design called tessellation. It’s a recurring regular pattern in which the negative spaces contain as much imagery as the positive spaces do.
He worked primarily in the medium of woodcut prints and his pieces are intensely creative, even mind bending in the way that they portray reality or alternate reality. Warped perspectives, recurring nested patterns, and distorted fields of vision all existing within an otherwise coherent picture plane became his specialty. You would probably recognize one of his pictures in which you can’t quite tell if you’re looking at a series of staircases from above or from underneath.
He was, at least in art world terms, a late bloomer. He didn’t have his first museum retrospective until 1968 when he was 70 years old. Although in the past 4 years he’s had 36 of them around the world.
His works provide a different kind of pleasure that, honestly, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I remember my mom didn’t really like him. But that’s one of the great things about art: in its wild diversity of form and content, there are styles that will meet almost everyone halfway. Escher is not one of my favorites. There may have been a time when he was, but not now. That having been said, sometimes looking at an Escher—letting my mind try to wrap
around the impossibilities that he portrays and marvel at how he portrayed such intricacies—is just what the doctor ordered.