Collecting guide: The ‘mindscapes’ of M.C. Escher
The creator of some of the most recognisable images of the 20th century was looked down upon by the art world for most of his life. Then, in the 1960s, he became a countercultural icon, feted by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Mick Jagger
The Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) once said of his image-making: ‘You have to retain a sense of wonder, that’s what it’s all about.’ Wonder has certainly been the reaction of many viewers of his work over the decades.
A printmaker of distinction, Escher is renowned above all for his visual riddles and puzzles, which routinely result in heads being scratched. A floor might become a ceiling, an exterior might become an interior, or stairs might rise infinitely but lead nowhere.
Escher has been cited as an influence by an array of cultural figures, from Hwang Dong-hyuk, creator of the hit Netflix TV series Squid Game, to Christopher Nolan, writer-director of the Oscar-winning 2010 sci-fi film Inception.
Graphic art studies and a move to Italy
Maurits Cornelis Escher was born into a bourgeois family in the city of Leeuwarden in the northern Netherlands, where his father was a hydro-mechanical engineer. He was a sickly boy and had to spend a long period of time in a convalescent home for infants.
School was of little interest to Escher. He failed his final exams, and it was only through his father’s personal connections that he was accepted on an architecture course at the Technical Institute of Delft. He soon realised, however, that art was his calling, and he moved to Haarlem, where he studied graphic arts under the highly regarded teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita.
The year 1924 was an important one for Escher: he had his first solo exhibition — at a small gallery in The Hague — and married his fiancée, Jetta. The following year the couple moved to Italy, where two of their three sons, George and Arthur, were born, and where they would remain for a decade.
Escher was still struggling to make his name at the time, and relied on significant financial help from his parents and in-laws. In truth, never in his lifetime did he really feel accepted by the art establishment.
He had to wait until 1968 to see his first retrospective — held at the Haags Gemeentemuseum (now the Kunstmuseum Den Haag) in The Hague, to mark his 70th birthday. As he told George in a letter towards the end of his life: ‘It is very sad, but it is a fact, that I… speak a language that very few can understand. I don’t belong anywhere.’
Woodcuts and lithographs of Italian towns
In his early years, Escher experimented with a number of styles, including Cubism and Art Nouveau, all of which he jettisoned. Trips up and down Italy would provide the inspiration for his first major body of work: atmospheric woodcuts and lithographs depicting Italian towns and villages.
These tended to be picturesque hillside places, often with medieval towers (such as Goriano Sicoli, Abruzzi). Escher captured them in an arresting way, sometimes looking down at them from above, sometimes looking up from below. He also began to play games with vanishing points and perspective, a practice he would continue, in more extreme form, in the signature works from later in his career.
Impossible imaginary worlds
The rise of Fascism prompted the Eschers to leave Italy in the mid-1930s. After short spells in Switzerland and Belgium, they ended up in the Netherlands. None of the landscapes in those countries, however, impressed Escher in the way that the Italian ones had. It is widely claimed that this prompted his switch away from realistic landscapes to what might be called ‘mindscapes’, the depictions of impossible, imaginary worlds on which his fame rests today.
A well-known example is Day and Night (above), in which a flock of black birds and a flock of white birds seem simultaneously to form part of, and be flying above, an area of countryside resembling a chessboard. There’s more going on than that, but Escher’s scenes are so full of visual detail that they’re notoriously difficult to describe.
The meticulous craftsman
Escher made relatively little art during the Second World War. A notable exception, however, was the lithograph Reptiles (1943), a print of which holds the record for the highest price ever paid for an Escher work at auction. It depicts a drawing, in a sketchbook on a desk, of a group of reptiles — with the twist that a few ‘three-dimensional’ reptiles emerge, seemingly alive, from one end of the paper and return into the drawing at the other end. Escher printed just 30 copies.
A meticulous craftsman, he liked to produce his own prints and was particular about the paper he used. Escher favoured thin, handmade paper such as japon, because it absorbed ink very readily.
An affinity with the philosophy of Albert Camus
Escher’s imagery was, in a word, idiosyncratic. Among visual artists, he had no obvious predecessors or successors (the Surrealists are occasionally cited, but their work is much less intricately composed). One cultural figure with whom he did claim an affinity, however, was the writer Albert Camus. The Frenchman’s absurdist philosophical outlook — essentially, that human life is without order or meaning — finds parallels in Escher’s prints.
The Dutchman was working on one of his most famous lithographs, Ascending and Descending, on the day that Camus died in a car crash in 1960. The work depicts a multi-storey building with a continuous staircase at the top, which simultaneously seems to lead up and down — but actually leads the people on it nowhere.
In a letter to George after the crash, Escher wrote that Camus would have appreciated the ‘absurdity’ of his new print: ‘We imagine that we climb… and what do we gain from it? Nothing. We don’t get any higher. Nor can we descend.’
Escher had an intuitive understanding of mathematics, which proved crucial to his success as an artist. Beyond intuition, he also enjoyed reading about mathematical concepts, many of which — infinity, reflection, symmetry, tessellation, perspective — crop up in his work.
He also interacted with several mathematicians — including Roger Penrose, who helped him conceive the idea of the ‘impossible staircase’ in Ascending and Descending — and was frequently invited to lecture at mathematical faculties around the world, where he was treated with a reverence he never experienced in the art world.
Another well-known work, Print Gallery (1956), above, depicts a man in an art gallery viewing a print of a port scene — and among the buildings in that port is the very gallery in which he stands. Escher was here making use of a mathematical process known as ‘recursion’.
The countercultural icon
In the 1960s, Escher became something of a countercultural icon, his mind-bending imagery finding a dedicated fanbase among the hippie generation. His work decorated countless bedrooms in the form of calendars and posters, and graced album covers by bands such as Mott the Hoople and The Scaffold.
The acclaim never sat easily with him, however. He turned down an invitation from Stanley Kubrick to be a consultant on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also rejected Mick Jagger’s invitation to design a Rolling Stones record cover, disliking the informal greeting — ‘Dear Maurits’ — with which the singer had begun his letter to him. Escher ended his reply, sent to Jagger’s assistant, with the words: ‘Please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him, but very sincerely M.C. Escher.’
The artist died in 1972, aged 73.
Rising prices for Escher’s prints
‘There’s a more universal appreciation of Escher’s art nowadays,’ says Arno Verkade, managing director of Christie’s Amsterdam. ‘Where in his lifetime there was a certain art-world snobbery that he was only a printmaker, today people simply know that he created some of the most recognisable images of the 20th century.’
Verkade also points out that the artist’s current popularity is partly down to the ‘internet-friendly’ nature of his work, which lends itself to widespread sharing.
This summer, the largest ever Escher retrospective was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prices for his prints have shown a marked rise in recent years: in total, nine works by Escher have fetched more than $150,000 at auction, seven of those since 2019.
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So what tips does Verkade have for prospective collectors? ‘Use three criteria, in particular,’ he says. ‘Condition, edition and subject. To take each in turn: ideally you want the paper to be in good condition, without tears or yellowing. Also, as with any print, the edition is important: generally speaking, a work made in a relatively small edition — of, say, 20, 30 or 40 — is more valuable than one made in a larger edition, of several hundred, simply because there is less supply.
‘Most important of all, though, is the quality of the art work itself — how strong the subject is, and how typically Escher-like it is in terms of its composition and effect.’
In other words, the most valuable prints tend to be those of his most famous and spellbinding images. There are probably around a dozen of these, some of which have already been mentioned (another is Drawing Hands, above).
‘When you find an Escher that meets all three of these criteria,’ says Verkade, ‘you truly have a feast for the eye.’