Houston art exhibit explores M.C. Escher’s genius

“Metamorphosis II” is on display in “Virtual Realities: The Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Half the world’s college dorm rooms have a black-light poster of a building with stairs that seem to connect in impossible ways, bending the laws of physics. Maybe you own a coffee cup depicting a flock of birds transforming into a school of fish. M.C. Escher’s optical illusions are so ubiquitous it is easy to dismiss his work merely as popular commercialism.

Is the Dutch artist more than just an illustrator? Oh, yes, indeed. Anyone in doubt need only visit “Virtual Realities: The Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5.

While I always enjoyed Escher’s work, I did not think of him in the pantheon of the 20th century’s great artists. However, I was not prepared for how profoundly impressive and inspiring this retrospective is, and that is credit to the MFAH staff who have done a marvelous job of immersing us in the artist’s process — both in technique and in thought.

M.C. Escher’s “Day and Night” and the woodblock he carved are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Escher kept all of his woodblocks and drawings, and Sachs acquired the entire collection — almost 700 items, including his cabinet and tools, of which more than 450 are included in this massive exhibition. The 11 rooms are arranged thematically rather than strictly chronological, but one is able to follow the progression of thought — artistic, scientific, mathematical and philosophical — as Escher expanded his quest for the infinite.

“Self Portrait” by M.C. Escher is on display in “Virtual Realities” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

It an overwhelming show, not just because of the volume of works on display, but also for the obsessive detail that demands careful study. But it is a demand with which the viewer will gladly comply.

In his 1923 self-portrait, we are given not only the finished print, but also the wood block and the original drawing on which it is based. Early in his career, Escher received limited financial support from his family. We see his frugality in the self-portrait woodblock, on the reverse of which he has carved “Serenade in Siena.” Escher kept the practice of using both sides of the blocks his whole life.

Escher’s parents wanted him to be an architect, and while he chose to express his creativity in 2-dimensions, his subjects are often architectural in subject, and he thinks in multiple dimensions within the flat surface.

In 1922, Escher visited the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain and began to incorporate repetition and symmetry. But where the Islamic tradition eschewed representation, Escher incorporated animals.

“Symmetry No. 6 (Camels)” by M.C. Escher is on display in “Virtual Realities” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

It was through the Islamic influence Escher began experimenting with “tessellations,” arrangements of shapes that interlock with each other without overlapping. One such three-color piece, “Symmetry No. 6 (Camels),” extends the tessellation as none of the individual colors touch each other. These are mathematical principles applied to the artistic realm. The boundaries of the paper limit the image, but in principle the boundary is infinite.

From 1922 to 1935 Escher lived in Italy and the multiple drawings and prints from that period are beautiful. He would spend spring and summer exploring the country and fall and winter making prints from the drawings. His drawings and prints of Rome by night are atmospheric.

When Mussolini’s fascist regime consolidated power, he was forced to move to Switzerland. And after two years, he moved to Belgium for two years before returning to the Netherlands for the rest of his life.

Even still, he returned to his Italian landscapes over the years, as the Northern European landscape did not inspire him in the same way.

“Still Life and Street” by M.C. Escher is on display in “Virtual Realities” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

“Still Life with Street,” from 1937, is Escher’s transitional work, moving from representational to illusory. On its face, it is a relatively mundane still life on a table in front of a window with a view of a street (based on a drawing he had made in the seaport of Savona, Italy). But as we look closer, we see there is no windowsill, and the books on the table subtly lean on the buildings on the street corner. Soon, the table becomes the street itself. We are both inside and outside.

Another of Escher’s themes is metamorphosis, mixed with tessellation. One of his most popular images, “Day and Night,” features flocks of birds that change in color and direction as they fly over a Dutch landscape mirrored in composition and light. For all its illusory cleverness, Escher’s mastery of technique on depicting light is to be admired.

A natural lefthander, Escher taught himself to carve with both hands as it might give him some extra insight. With his interest in metamorphosis, it seems appropriate that he would seek that in himself.

There is simply too much here to tease. There are geometric models he created in order to accurately reproduce in two dimensions, although the original designs are intricate in themselves. There are the tools of his trade, the woodblocks and lithography stones, which are artworks in themselves.

Different print states and the corresponding woodblocks are on display in “Virtual Realities: The Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Escher did the woodblock prints by hand without using a press, burnishing them with a spoon. Think on that when looking at the looping, 22-feet long tessellation, “Metamorphosis III,” which is exhibited alongside the 31 woodblocks that went into its creation. The piece is designed so that the beginning and the end can feed back on themselves.

Of course, Escher’s popular works are represented — staircases in multiple dimensions, buildings that are impossible to construct, hands drawing hands — but it is the lesser-known works that make “Virtual Realities” a jewel of an exhibition.

For all Escher’s mathematical and philosophical principles evident, there is humor and “Easter eggs,” to use a modern parlance — little details that beg to be discovered by the eager viewer. This is an exhibition that needs to be savored, to be visited slowly, and more than once.

Michael S. Sachs, right, and Dena Woodall, MFAH curator of prints and drawings, pose in the Relativity Room installation at “Virtual Realities: The Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 5. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Maurits Cornelis Escher is popular because of his genius, and his genius is not defined by his popularity. One feeds the other like one of his endless looping prints.

For the length of his five-decade career, Escher sought to expand the boundaries of reality, to illustrate the infinite. He died in 1972, but the work lives on in infinity — and it is marvelous.

“Virtual Realities: The Art of M.C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” is on display through Sept. 5, and is exclusive to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

For more information, visit mfah.org.

This story originally ran in the March 18, 2022 Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.

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