Where is everyone? I am the last person to get off the 63 bus on my exodus from Welwyn Garden City (what I wishfully refer to as “North London”) to see the enticing Escher exhibit. Strangely for a Saturday the streets of South London appear abandoned. It could be the chilly autumn gloom and uninviting skies keeping people away, i think, making my way through Camberwell Old Cemetery with just the crows for company. When I reach Dulwich Park and finally the Picture Gallery, it is clear what the denizens of Dulwich and beyond have gravitated towards.
M.C. Escher, 43 years after his death, continues to exert a strong fascination on art-lovers and fans of the psychedelic. Opening on October 14th and ending January 17th next year, The Amazing World of M. C. Escher is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK. The opportunity to see some of his most infamous images (Drawing Hands; Relativity) has drawn through London an eclectic and international crowd. The grounds of the gallery are awash with the curious, excitable and highly caffeinated. Bold American accents intermingle with soft, sophisticated French ones. A queue starts to accumulate when I arrive at mid-day; half an hour later it stretches out the door to the street.
This unexpected level of interest results in the stage management of people into the exhibition. On entering I join what could be a very subdued conga line and proceed slowly round the room, shoulder to shoulder with the rich in years and the very young. We begin by gazing intently at Escher’s early works, dazzled by their impressive level of technical detail. As we move on to the next room there is a shift from his landscape and exploratory work into more surreal territory (Still life and Street; Dream) and shortly we are cooing in wonder at his topsy-turvy staircases and perceptual trickery. There are 6 rooms all in all and given the impressive scope of the show, it wouldn’t be a stretch to spend at least three hours soaking up the depth of the work on display.
The exhibit makes clear that Escher was an incredibly talented graphic artist with a remarkable eye for detail. He manages to realistically convey the distortions to an image in a sphere or glass, capturing the subtleties of reflected light. His initial training as an architect is apparent in his recurring motif of ‘impossible objects’, constructions that could not exist in the real world, and so we see buildings that would never obtain planning permission from any sane local council. His knowledge of mathematics is also frequently acknowledged, aiding him in creating his visual puzzles and depictions of infinity.
While eye-catching and technically astounding, his works also provoke questions about the nature of reality, of art and illusion. Mirrors and reflective surfaces, rather than signifying a limit or boundary, seem to suggest something permeable, another potential reality. In Magic Mirror, winged lions form a procession down through the mirror, before circling out right; their reflected selves appear symmetrically on the left side, free agents of their ‘original’ form. Escher seems interested in depicting a plurality of possibilities, of investigating multiple planes of existence. As in his images of gravity-defying staircases (Relativity, for example), one person’s up is another’s down; someone else’s left is right. He also explodes the binary between reality and fantasy when he shows us two-dimensional objects stepping out into three-dimensional life (Drawing Hands; Reptiles), appearing as real live things in the picture. In doing so he reminds us of the illusion, that despite appearances we are always observing a two-dimensional representation.
“Chaos is the beginning, order is the conclusion.” Escher said once. His mind-boggling visions are indeed perfectly formed, created by applying rigorous technique and mathematical precision. Perhaps these are the reasons for the sense of determinism in many of his images; his tessellations going on ad infinitum and his unending, endlessly repeated stairways. One could lament the lack of feeling, the absence of wit and chaos more pronounced in his contemporaries Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte’s output. But then, while he admired the latter’s work, he never claimed to march to the beat of the Surrealists drum. His popularity extends from his capacity to interrogate the notion of reality and our perception of it, enticing movie-makers and free-thinkers with his fantastical depictions of space and time.
The exhibition runs from 14 October 2015 until 17 January 2016 www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.