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And Now for Something Somewhat Familiar

KMA presents the inner vision of M.C. Escher

by Heather Joyner

The Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher wrote, "It can apparently happen that...an individual, passing his days like other artists in the creation of more or less fantastic pictures, can one day feel ripen in himself a conscious wish to use his imaginary images to approach infinity as purely and as closely as possible." A tall order, yes, but one that Escher spent decades pursuing. Eighty-five works revealing the evolution of that objective—such things as hands drawing each other into existence and black birds flying one direction with shapes in their wake defining white birds following an opposite path—are unveiled tomorrow at the KMA. In addition to discovering what Escher called the "distinct and exciting language" of such forms, we are privy to the twists and turns of Escher's own path and sense of wonder. On loan from the National Gallery of Art and making its only appearance in the Southeast, the impressive collection includes woodcuts and engravings, mezzotints, and lithographs that bespeak a prolific career devoted to exploring visual perception.

The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama's tome examining Dutch culture in its "golden age" of empire building, opens with the following line: "It is the peculiar genius of the Dutch to seem, at the same time, familiar and incomprehensible." Schama goes on to relate Henry James' observation that in 1870s Holland, the cleaner something looked, the more vigorously one went about scouring it. Wrote James, "Where could a speck or two possibly... come from unless produced by spontaneous generation: there are no specks...on the trees whose trunks are to all appearance carefully sponged every morning. The speck exists evidently only as a sort of mathematical point, capable of extension in the Batavian brain..." We might ask why Schama's look at "the mental furniture of the Dutch world" so rapidly delves into matters of compulsive cleanliness. Ah, therein lies the (sc)rub, for we can perceive Netherlandish obsession with detail as reflecting a desire to draw small parts into a whole; to imbue the commonplace with heightened significance. But what, pray tell, might the above have to do with the art of Escher?

Born in 1898 to a privileged family, Escher traveled extensively and lived in Rome for 12 years (until '30s fascism compelled him to relocate to Switzerland). He was, nevertheless, quintessentially Dutch. True, there must be bad French lovers, Italians who cannot cook, and even slobs in Escher's hometown of Leeuwarden, but Schama's characterization of the Netherlandish temperament as precocious and paradoxical (community-oriented yet individualistic, restrained but inventive, both prosperous and practical, etc.) is generally accepted. And Escher was nothing if not exactingly original. Like those who reclaimed land from the sea, he possessed an exceptional talent for creating something from nothing—however elusive that something might be. At first glance there's the Escher who enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1960s, "...especially among young people, some of whom felt that his images complemented the 'mind-expanding' experience gained through hallucinogenic drugs" (Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Art). But beyond the trippy pop hero la Castaneda and Huxley whose art has adorned many a classroom and dormitory wall, we find a man indefatigable in his quest to document an "inner world." Writes Schama, "Dutch art invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of appearances. By illuminating an interior world as much as an exterior one, it moves back and forth between morals and matter, between the durable and the ephemeral, the concrete and the imaginary, in a way that is particularly Netherlandish....the animate and inanimate world of the Dutch...[its] state of organic flux, forever composing, decomposing, and recomposing itself [reflects what Paul Claudel] called its 'élasticité secrète;' the essential kinetic quality for a country where the very elements of land and water seem indeterminately separated..." Shifts in Escher's development, however, are more discernible.

Although he was until 1937 more concerned with spatial perception and the observed environment (as evidenced by self-portraits and realistic renderings of architecture) than with what he later called a "deepest endlessness" via imaginary scenarios, Escher produced early images that hinted at an inevitable tryst with his own brand of Surrealism. It's as if his masterful architectonic detail is sinking under the weight of loftier possibilities. After a trip in 1936 to view and sketch Moorish mosaics in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, Escher realized his fascination with geometric pattern and the two-dimensional plane. According to Helen Gardner, "The relationship of one form to another in the Islamic is more important than the totality of the design," yet the implication of infinity found in pattern is apparently what most captivated Escher and eventually became a primary theme. His sense of humor-tinged fantasy carried what might otherwise be solely decorative to another level. J.L. Locher has remarked that Escher's ability to combine opposing aspects of reality is indeed remarkable, however linked it may be to other developments in 20th century art and culture (Freud's emphasis on the subconscious springs to mind...).

In addition to Escher's works, the KMA presents a video biography, examples of tools used in printmaking, and prints in progress that shed light on the artist's methods and process. Ties for Dad, soft interlocking lizards for the kids, and loads of other exhibit-related merchandise can be purchased in the Museum Shop. Concurrent with the KMA's 10th anniversary, It Is Is It is an event with something for everyone.