Patterns dissolve as cubes turn to birds and a chess game becomes the coast of Amalfi. The banner spanning the main entrance of the M.C. Escher exhibit gives fair warning for the art that follows.
The National Gallery of Art has assembled a collection of 85 pieces of Escher’s work. “A Centennial Tribute” commemorates the 100th birthday of the artist known for challenging visual assumptions.
The exhibit features drawings, woodcuts, linoleum cuts, lithographs, mezzotints and illustrated books. The pieces are organized by subject matter into four rooms.
The first room, “Self-Portraits,” emphasizes Escher’s focus on self-perception and includes work from the beginning to end of Escher’s career. This room contains the most artistically traditional of Escher’s work. However, “Self-Portraits” also houses pieces from later in his career that challenge the rules of conventional art. “Hand with Reflecting Sphere,” a 1935 lithograph, depicts Escher and his studio as he holds a spherical mirror.
“The World Observed,” the second room, contains works heavily influenced by Escher’s time in Italy. Several landscapes focus on the Italian coast and cities, reflecting the artist’s geometric style. The room features “The Bridge,” a 1930 lithograph of a fictional landscape noted for its seemingly endless depth.
The following room, “Inner Visions,” holds what might be considered Escher’s most bizarre work, his “mental imagery” pieces. These works often are based on theoretical premises indicating situations and objects that cannot exist. “Waterfall,” a 1961 lithograph, offers the impossibility of perpetually flowing water based on Roger Penrose’s “Impossible Triangle.” Similarly, “Up and Down,” a 1947 lithograph, provides a scene simultaneously viewed from above and below.
The third room also contains the original plates, woodcut proofs and preparatory drawings detailing the production of the 1959 print “Circle Limit III.” The piece required 20 separate printings from five blocks of wood to produce one finished print. It depicts swimming fish that become progressively smaller in a mathematically-determined process of reduction, and is based on Escher’s fascination with what he called the “irregular division of a plane.”
The final room, “Regular Division of a Plane,” focuses on shapes that interlock to form patterns. “Day and Night,” a popular 1938 woodcut, uses opposing forms of black and white birds in a transition from light to darkness. The scene is reflected across the print to offer both a daytime and nighttime view.
The exhibit ends with the original print of “Metamorphose III.” Printed from 33 blocks and stretching more than 20 feet, it was the model for the 150-foot work that hangs in the post office in The Hague. A walk alongside this strip fittingly concludes an impressive exhibit. Escher’s mastery of transition is clear and entrancing, as the print continuously reshapes apparently rigid patterns to create new ones.
The exhibition continues through April 26 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.