Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: M.C. Escher; John Hoyland

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: M.C. Escher; John Hoyland

Article excerpt

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher

Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 17 January 2016

John Hoyland: Power Stations

Newport Street Gallery, until 3 April 2016

'Surely,' mused the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, 'it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim: "This is a house."' He made a good point. That is what almost all artists since the days of Lascaux have done: put down some splodges of paint or a line or two and proclaimed, 'This is a bison', 'This is a man', 'This is Mona Lisa'. One of the aims of Escher's work, which is currently displayed in an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, was to undermine such pretensions to represent reality.

At first glance, his images often seem meticulously, even aridly factual. 'Still Life with Mirror, March 1934' shows us a bathroom looking-glass on a table, toothbrush and paste arranged in front; but the reflection in the glass is of a medieval Italian street. It takes a moment to realise that this is a Lewis Carroll state of affairs. The looking-glass is a window to a different world; the city cannot be inside this room.

In a work such as this, Escher (1898-1972) had an obvious affinity with his exact contemporary, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. He, too, was struck by the fact that a picture of a pipe -- or a dressing table -- was not the thing itself. Technically, and in mood, he also had a good deal in common with Anglo-Saxon wood engravers such as Clare Leighton and Eric Ravilious.

Escher specialised in print media, almost always in black and white, and deployed with extreme precision. Even in his early years, however, his lithographs and woodcuts such as the view of 'Castrovalva (Abruzzi), February 1930' had an eerie atmosphere and vertiginously plunging perspectives.

Already you get the feeling that those neat little black shapes might metamorphose into something else. A few years later, they did. 'Day and Night, February 1938' is a landscape viewed from the air. On the left, black geese fly over sunlit fields; on the right, there are white birds and the scenery is darkening into night. In the middle, the two flocks intersect, revealing themselves as just flat, geometric shapes -- which in turn merge into the pattern of fields below.

A good deal of Escher's work was to do with this kind of duck/rabbit conundrum. He also delighted in paradoxes such as the building in 'Ascending and Descending, March 1960'. This is roughly in the style of Brunelleschi, progenitor of Renaissance single-point perspective. But the staircase on its top storey forms an endless, impossible loop around which figures trudge up -- or down -- forever. …

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