Dutch artist M. C. Escher (1898-1972) is currently wowing audiences at Melbourne’s NGV in a world-premiere exhibition from The Hague in Amsterdam.
"My work is a game. A very serious game."
That quote from Marits Cornelius Escher perfectly sums up his work. Through woodcuts, drawings and sketches – depicting everything from endless staircases to symmetrical swan patterns to landscapes of Sicily, Venice, Abruzzo, Corsica and Calabria – Escher played a mathematical game of visual wizardry, merging realism and fantasy during a prolific career from 1916 to 1969.
Cathy Leahy, National Gallery Victoria’s (NGV) Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, has been intensely involved in bringing this exhibition, Between Two Worlds, to Melbourne. Negotiations with Netherlands’ Gemeentemuseum, one of Europe’s biggest art museums, began back in 2015.
Cathy explains that Escher only attained prominence after his death. "He came to the attention of mathematicians and the scientific community in the 1950s, but didn’t shoot to fame until the 1960s and 1970s,” she says. “Articles in the popular press, such as Time and Life magazine, helped this; as did the English translation of Escher’s book on his prints in 1961, The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher."
Cathy says Escher worked outside the mainstream art world and was somewhat of a loner in terms of artistic style. "He was quite reclusive and lived in the small town of Baarn, outside Amsterdam, from the 1940s. He wasn’t part of an art movement. His work was figurative at the time when the artistic avant-garde was pursuing abstract art."
Widely touted as a mathematical and geometric genius, producing his optically puzzling artworks was a serious – and at times, lonely – endeavour. According to Cathy, he was a consummate craftsman. "There were a couple of steps to Escher’s process," she explains. "He always said the most difficult part was the resolving of his ideas. During this time he’d require quiet and solitude, and he often wouldn’t discuss these ideas or new pictures until he’d fully resolved them. This often took time with many preparatory drawings in which he’d work out the complex geometry or optical illusions."
Escher’s work, absorbing as it is, is only part of this story. This current showing at the NGV has been enriched on a grand scale by acclaimed Japanese design studio, nendo. Together, they are Between Two Worlds. Far richer than just a solo exhibition, the collaboration and contrast of the two creative forces allows for a significant reinterpretation of the 157 prints and drawings on display.
The idea to fuse the work of Escher with nendo allows for new interpretations, never seen before. "The idea evolved as part of the NGV strategy of forging creative links between art and design; as was seen last summer in the NGV Triennial which showcased international art, design and architecture,” Cathy says. “The impetus was to present Escher’s work in a new and innovative way, and as his practice has been inspirational for architects and designers, it was felt that presenting his graphic work through the lens of contemporary design would bring forth new and unexpected results"
Merging artists from different eras and locations is not a new model for the NGV. In 2015-16 they very successfully counterpointed the works of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, with Andy Warhol. "Such juxtapositions and collaborations can be very fruitful if they’re approached sensitively and respectfully," Cathy says. The Andy Warhol / Ai WeiWei exhibition went on to break attendance records, and at the time became the gallery’s highest-selling ticketed exhibition in their history.
It took nendo, led by former architect, now designer, Oki Sato, almost an entire year to complete this commission. Working closely with the NGV, nendo was supplied with full plans of the exhibition spaces and made two site visits prior to the installation.
So why nendo – known for furniture, homewares and art installations – as opposed to any other design studio? Certain parallels were seen between nendo’s and Escher’s work, responds Cathy. “Nendo share common interests in spatial manipulation, optical illusion and playful visual devices. Both delight in surprising viewers and prompting them to question their preconceptions and experience of the everyday world” she says. “Both are storytellers – there’s a narrative element to both of their work; and both are wedded to consummate craftsmanship and technical precision in their work’s production.”
The NGV exhibition stretches artistic boundaries by "making people reconsider Escher’s art from a new perspective," Cathy continues. "His concerns with expressing the 3-D world on the 2-D sheet of paper are brought into the physical realm by nendo’s process of bringing 2-D expression into the 3-D world. So, it becomes experiential in a very different way. Nendo’s installations start with a deep understanding of Escher’s ideas, which are then processed through the nendo design 'toolkit', which ultimately promotes new insights into the artist’s work."
The exhibition runs until 7 April 2019 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Don’t miss it.