“M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph, 12-1/2 x 8-1/2″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Is it permissible, at this late date, to prefer the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) to that of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, his contemporaries in chronology if not historical standing? At the entrance to “M. C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” a wall label tells us that, during his lifetime, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was “underappreciated by much of the mainstream art world.” As a student, I distinctly remember one of my instructors pooh-poohing Escher, waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to suggest otherworldly hokum. Clearly, here was an artist to be held at a distance. Escher’s mass popularity, an easy mark for the cultivated few, didn’t help. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts makes a point of how Escher is esteemed by “mathematicians, crystallographers, and psychologists,” as well as “experts in fields that range from design to aerospace.” Everybody, that is, except artists. Encomiums to Escher accompany the work on display. Among those extolling his virtues are chefs, poets, astronauts, scientists, communications strategists, and musicians both classical (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and not (the proto-punk Ian Hunter). “From dorm-room posters to book jackets,” Escher’s art “has delighted millions of people around the world.”

If the logjam of pedestrians throughout “Infinite Dimensions” is an indication, visitors to the MFA are taking delight as well. For Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, Escher was a harder sell. She’s a recent convert, if a seemingly recalcitrant one. In an interview with the local public radio affiliate, Baer ad- mitted she once “disdained” Escher, but now she finds that his pictorial obsessions evince “signs of a real artist.” Signs are one thing, achievement another, and it’s worth mulling how much name recognition was a factor in mounting the show. A lot, I would think, though Escher’s notoriety is of a different sort than that of Takashi Murakami, who is the subject of “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics; A Collaboration with Nobuo

Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” a concurrent exhibition at the MFA. Escher achieved gradual renown through the canny deployment of puzzle-like fantasies, Murakami by exploiting an arts establishment that considers the lowest common denominator a badge of courage. Sometimes art is audience-driven; at other times it drives the audience. Not all popular artists are created equal.

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M.C. Escher, Reptiles (1943), lithograph, 13 x 15-1/4″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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In our post-Warholian age, celebrity isn’t the bugaboo it once was, but it’s worth pondering if Escher’s renown distinguishes itself by being—how does one put it, exactly?— commonsensical. In a 2015 interview, Mickey Piller, the former curator of Escher in Het Paleis, a museum located in The Hague, pointed to an insular art world as one factor determining Escher’s appeal. Compared to errant splatters of paint, mute blocks of steel and concrete, and heady admixtures of this, that, and the other thing, who wouldn’t prefer immaculately limned dreamscapes in which the eye is not only entertained and perplexed, but acknowledged? Escher’s work “seemed simple and easy to understand.” The days of dismissing Escher as middle-brow entertainment—the province of stoners, video-game enthusiasts, and science nerds—are on the wane. Blame a value-free culture, if you like, but also credit the march of time, which provides the distance to approach certain artists with a sobriety that may not have been forthcoming during their lifetimes. Yesterday’s snobbery might well be concealing today’s addition to the canon.

Born in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of Holland, Escher was the fifth son of a well-to-do civil engineer. A sickly youth, “Mauk”—Escher’s family nickname—proved an iffy student, excelling only at mathematics. He eventually attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where an abortive go at architecture led to more fruitful studies in the decorative arts. Notwithstanding the discernible influence of his teacher, the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Escher didn’t blossom as an artist until he traveled through Italy and Spain in 1922. A trip to the Alhambra, with its Moorish architecture and elaborate tile work, proved decisive. Escher settled in Rome for thirteen years, leaving only when Mussolini’s rule made itself felt on the most apolitical of men. A return to the Alhambra—“the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped”—intensified Escher’s self-described “mania” for tessellated patterning. The interlocking back and forth of pictorial space defined the work from there on out, albeit cast with a dour Symbolism that is nothing if not northern European in temper. (Think Dürer and Bosch; Van Eyck and Klee.) In the 1950s, Escher became a favorite of mathematicians, who gleaned a kindred spirit within the exacting incongruities that gave structure to the imagery. The work’s trippy elasticity found a new group of admirers in the generation formed by the mind-expanding excesses of the 1960s.

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M.C. Escher, Order and Chaos (1950), lithograph, 11 x 11″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Escher, in other words, became hip. Mick Jagger sought his talents for a Rolling Stones album cover. Stanley Kubrick asked Escher to help design a “fourth dimensional film,” presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Escher demurred on both counts, finding, perhaps, that the pull of his topsy-turvy world proved absorbing enough. Since then, images like Relativity (1953), with its Piranesi-like play of perspective, and the self-generating conundrum that is Drawing Hands (1948) have seeped into the common culture. What’s surprising about “Infinite Dimensions” is how familiarity breeds not contempt but the freedom to focus on aspects other than Escher’s clever machinations of image and space. His touch, especially in the lithographs, rewards close attention. Rarely has a crayon been manipulated with such tender diligence. Yes, tender: the surfaces of Contrast (Order and Chaos) (1950) and the warp-and-weft illusionism of Hand with a Reflecting Sphere (1935) have an underplayed sensuality that offers recompense for the hermetic nature of Escher’s work. Who knows? Perhaps Escher will be adopted by the art world as an outsider—a loner ineluctably caught in a web of his own distractions. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, “Infinite Dimensions” is a welcome exception to the run-of-the-mill iterations of our oh-so-tired and increasingly politicized status quo.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2018 Mario Naves

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