CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Maurits Escher (1889-1972)

Exhibition: 16 September - 30 November 2003

From the museum website

In the Hall of Twelve Columns (Room No. 244) of the New Hermitage opened the first exhibition of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) in Russia. This is a gift of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the 300th Anniversary of St. Petersburg. It includes 80 works by the outstanding Dutch graphic artist, which amply represent his achievement.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, the capital of the province Friesland (the Netherlands). He studied at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where the artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita taught him the technique of woodcut and encouraged his experiments.

After graduating from the school, Escher traveled extensively. In South Spain he visited the Alhambra, a 13th century palace in Granada, where he was deeply impressed and inspired by the Moorish geometric decorations. The young artist was fascinated by Italy. However, in 1935 because of the rise of Italian fascism he had to move to Switzerland, and from there to Ukkel at Brussels, finally settling in Baarn, the Netherlands, where his Foundation is now headquartered.

The artist’s life is split into two lengthy periods. During the greater part of the first period — till 1937 — Escher lived in Italy and traveled around the Mediterranean, making drawings of southern towns, which he later reproduced with the use of the techniques of linoleum engraving and xylography. In these early works, objective representation is emphasized. The exhibition shows landscapes of this period, including Castrovalva (1930) and Village Turello, South Italy (1932).

The second period was triggered by Escher’s last travel to Spain. The master’s design grows ever more fantastic and abstract. The fantastic air of even the most commonplace phenomena in Escher’s works recalls Jan Vermeer van Delft and Pieter de Hooch. This principle of the master’s art is illustrated by the lithograph Reptiles (1943), where reality breaks loose of the fetters of reason, and our perception accepts as logical the paradoxical and unbelievable event whose scene is the artist’s desk. The borderline between objectivity and subjectivity becomes blurred. In the woodcut Another World (1947), a window into the outer space is depicted in three various dimensions in the same space. This creates an unexpected and unreal effect, which proves that visual perceptions are merely conventional.

Graphic works of Maurits Escher are neither figments of imagination, nor proof of scientific theories, nor documents of an eyewitness. What the artist shows is not the reality empirically known by his audience. No staircase exists on which you could go down as you are going up as in the lithograph Ascending and Descending (1960), showing a castle full of soldiers who are doomed for ever to go in circles within the inclosed spatial whirlpool. There is in reality no colonnade with the quaintly entangled columns, which decorates the fantastic pavilion in another famed lithograph Belvedere (1958), showing a medieval mathematician deep in his thoughts.

One of the most remarkable exhibits is the four meter long woodcut Metamorphosis II, the world’s largest xylography.

Escher’s works have gained an enormous popularity: they are used as teaching aids by scientists and psychologists, illustrate sophisticated modern novels, and decorate covers of popular rock groups; without them modern age is unthinkable.