Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Amazing World of M C Escher, Dulwich Picture Gallery review – to infinity and beyond

Good old M C Escher. The unprepossessing Dutch artist of extraordinary technical skill, whose woodcut graphic art explored paradox, infinity, tessellation, perspective, reflection and metamorphosis; a mathematical magician who learned only as much geometry as he needed to create his ever-mind-bending designs; a landscape artist of uncommon sensitivity and grace, who could evoke with varying strokes on a copper lithograph plate the rolling vistas of the Italian coast or architecture of Spain; whose worldwide success meant he kept raising the prices of his prints, trying to dampen down demand to no effect, but was never much feted in the art world; who was utterly bemused by the 60s counter-culture interest in his work, and refused a commission from the Rolling Stones supposedly because Mick Jagger addressed him by his first name; who was one of the triumvirate, with Gödel and Bach, of Douglas Hofstadter's golden eternal braid, which I have tried to read at least three times; the artist who, without apparently having any interest in drugs or mind-expansion, best managed to capture the hallucinations attendant to strong psychedelics. 


So, yeah, him. They put on a show of his work, this first in this country ever. It was ... um, great. I mean, I hate art galleries at the best of times, and this wasn't even close to being the best of times. And daytime at Dulwich does seem to involve an unnerving number of bald heads and grey hairs, the somewhat dystopian vision of where, I'm led to believe, the whole country will be in 50 years time: 90% old people getting in the way. 

That might sound bad, and it was, but to be fair, I was in a filthy mood and it was aggravated by the gallery's tiny rooms, which meant everyone shuffled round like it was a tube journey where we all wanted to read all the adverts. There again, the works are small and insanely detailed, so you wouldn't necessarily need bigger rooms, just fewer people would have been grand. I can only blame myself, since, despite knowing about this show for ages before it opened, I only managed to go with two days left, by which point all the oldies were no doubt on their fifth visit, determined to stand in the way of the only under-50 in town. 


I, like many people, stared at an awful lot of the pictures in reproduction as a stoned teenager, and they didn't necessarily gain an enormous amount in the flesh. Some of the woodcut prints were noticeably sharper and more impressive, but, especially as Escher wasn't much one for colour, seeing the real deal did not always impact enough to make up for the severe irritation of being in the gallery with all those people in those tiny rooms. The most notable exception was his final print, Snakes, which was magnificent, but that could have been because it was so close to the exit. There were a few nice artefacts: preparatory sketches; Escher's tools of his trade; his letters to the mathematician Roger Penrose; Escher's own copy of a Rolling Stone article about him, with his marks in the margin; and I would say about 20 works out the 100 there that I hadn't stared at to death more than 25 years ago. There was just one actual woodblock, with lizards on it, which had been drilled into to prevent further, unauthorised prints. I would have dearly liked to see some more blocks, and a clear explanation of how he constructed his prints from multiple blocks. Unfortunately the blurbs beside the pictures raised more questions than they answered.


Escher would no doubt have been unimpressed with me being rude about the elderly, having been, from what I can tell, old his entire life. He was baffled by the interest of the psychedelic era, especially those oafish hippies who saw a marijuana plant at the centre of his 1945 picture Balcony, thus claiming him as a kindred spirit. It obviously isn't a marijuana plant, and in any case his pictures are more reminiscent of LSD hallucinations – the curving tessellation, the metamorphosis of inanimate things into moving things and back again, the glimpses of infinity – than weed's soft-focus, warm-coloured distortions. Aged 15, I was obsessed with his 1956 woodcut Smaller and Smaller, which was the only thing that came close to capturing the hallucinations I'd seen in the night sky over Primrose Hill after taking a life-changing microdot. 


Of course, Hoffman didn't discover LSD until 1942, so Escher would have been unlikely to have experienced that particular medicament (having said that, he was in Switzerland at about the right time ...). However, I was pleased to note the unlikely appearance of a sole liberty cap masquerading as a light fitting in his 1935 masterpiece, Hand With Reflecting Sphere, thus clearing up the mystery to the satisfaction of all concerned. 


OK, it isn't that either. It seems that Escher managed to a priori tap into, explore and represent truths about reality and perception that most people could only glimpse on 150µg of acid. However, I do have incontrovertible evidence that Escher was not, as he pretended to be, some naif in the ways of pop culture. No, sir. Maurits Cornelis Escher was, in actual fact, a hipster before hipsters – in the 1920s, as well, so way, way before anyone else could make the claim – I mean, can you get any more hipster than being a hipster 80 years before anyone else has even heard of them? Case closed. And if you want more proof, well, here it is: the photographic, or at least lithographic, evidence of your own eyes: just look at this fuckin' hipster.

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