My lack of patience with M.C. Escher is a thread which I can trace all the way back to a definite beginning. At the comprehensive school where I was educated (or at least, that’s what they called it), prints of Escher’s work were nowhere to be seen in the peace of the art department. They did not look down on the sheep’s skull and the ancient seed pods which had featured in thousands of compulsory still-lifes. Instead, they were hung outside the classrooms in the maths block. You would puzzle over the bland mysteries of these pristine scenes, in which pantomime courtiers plodded their way around impossible staircases, before you grew bored and dissatisfied with them. For me, algebra appeared to flow seamlessly from Escher’s unresolvable conundrums and one of his pictures could encapsulate whole lessons full of sums.
Today, more than a few years later, I am at the Dean Gallery, which has been belatedly renamed Modern Two, as if it was the second instalment in a terrible Hollywood franchise. The question which I am currently worrying at is whether Escher is, as they are trying to make out in this new exhibition, a great artist. Although I will enjoy this exhibition, my schoolboy distrust of Escher will never undergo a détente.
Let us bundle the innocent out of the line of fire. This is certainly a great exhibition. It is the first UK exhibition of Escher’s work, with its generous array of woodcuts, drawings, lithographs, and mezzotints arriving on loan from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands. It is curated with obvious care and expertise by Patrick Elliott. If you walk into this exhibition in a rather brainless state, it is utterly enthralling and you are wound around its five rooms as if you were on the end of a wire. The show is already a draw, and we are all stepping from each picture to the next with the peristalsis regularity of the figures in the pictures themselves.
But none of this is to say that Escher was a great artist. Reviews of The Amazing World of MC Escher have immediately located the nearest cliché within reach: Escher was a recluse, a genius, someone who (in the words of the Scotsman) “does not belong within any art movement,” a man who was out of time and always out of place. When Stanley Kubrick phoned Escher up for a chat, Escher would snap back, “I don’t know who you are! I haven’t time for this trivia!” He was cooler than everyone else, you see, because he was so square. He was all that we want to see in an artist – he was deeply serious and yet impeccably unworldly. When art collectors began to pester Escher, he would put his prices up to get them to go away. He emerges from this exhibition looking rather like Tintin’s crony Professor Calculus – a dinky, darling little genius. He is, in a word, cute.
Actually, a stroll around this exhibition demonstrates that Escher was neither an original genius nor particularly artistically virtuous. His perspective-bending, dimension-warping outlook, as evinced in the 1945 lithograph “Balcony,” climbs up on to a horse which Pablo Picasso had ridden thirty years before. Except that Picasso had galloped along with aplomb on a sexy, powerful stallion, whilst Escher goes at a clip-clopping pace. There is no danger or glamour to Escher’s sterile images; they have a plastic, almost corporate quality and, more than the work of any artist of a comparable stature, they have the cleanness of synthetic products. Elsewhere, these images reflect the weightlessness of Salvador Dali’s paintings, especially the 1956 lithograph “Bond of Union” which appears to be modelled upon Dali’s “Exploding Raphaelesque Head” (1951). There is, however, none of the frenzied clutter and faecal textures which occasionally make Dali interesting. By the time that we get to the metamorphoses and tessellations, that wallpaper mentality which creeps steadily into Escher’s artworks, we are reconciled to the world of surfaces, to the same banality which would be soon stamped like a logo upon Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. If Escher’s staircase scenes were real things, they would be odourless and hum like shopping malls. They are asexual and wholly unthreatening.
This is not to deny the dazzling technical prowess which blazes throughout Escher’s work and never burns out. It is not to deny his wondrous restlessness – the constant adventurism which led him to discover extraterrestrial beauty in a mummified frog and to surprise the clarity of the moon in a muddy puddle. It is not to deny the total absorption which Escher put into each image. But he still had the emotional range and depth of a psychopath. He produced no significant images of his wife and children, who remain forever locked out of his artistic world. An ostensibly fond portrait of his father, when viewed in the context of this exhibition, comes to seem like a technical exercise, a display of bravura in the (for Escher, largely uncharted) field of portraiture. There are many self-portraits of Escher, mostly staring glassily into glass spheres, and yet they are so stuffy and unrevealing that they could adequately serve as passport photos.
Rather than enriching the world of maths, or showing how it could inspire great works of art, Escher instead confirms the misgivings that people usually have about mathematicians. As a person, and especially as an artist, Escher comes across as immature or psychologically incomplete, with a touch of Asperger’s dysfunctionality providing the twinkle in his eye. Yet, as we all know, Escher had a skull in his eye, rather than a twinkle. When you study one of Escher’s images, you may feel amused and satisfied, but you are unlikely to experience any great noble emotion. Escher had spent months researching and constructing these images, living in them and doting over them, only to produce this brief microwave ping of approval in the viewer.
Escher’s art never degenerated – it is all there from the very beginning. Early in his career, he had toured Mediterranean towns and returned with scenes of geometric perfection. This is what I mean by psychopathy: imagine experiencing the sensual feast of an Italian town and then reducing it to a Rubik’s Cube! Escher’s towns do not look lived in – they look as if they are still waiting for their residents to arrive. Escher’s people, on the other hand, look as blank as Escher’s buildings. In any case, Escher’s art would be gradually invaded by bug-eyed carp and merry mantises and wackily prancing reptiles. The few people who stayed were forced to appear in pseudo-Renaissance fancy-dress.
I do not know whether the failure that I am describing is down to autism or being Dutch. But whenever you encounter some emotional alertness in Escher’s artwork, such as the confrontation between the mother and son in “Up and Down” (1945), it is probably an accident.
It is a truism that Escher has been, as the curator of this exhibition puts it, “completely overlooked by the arts establishment.” It is not, though, an injustice. Escher has hitherto nonplussed lovers of art and it is surely for the best if things stay this way.
The Amazing World of MC Escher continues until 27 September.