at Bunkamura Museum of Art
in the Shibuya area
This event has ended - (2006-11-11 - 2007-01-13)
Posters of his works have adorned teenagers’ bedroom walls for decades, bands have used his images as the cover art for their albums, and his designs have been incorporated into fashion, furniture design and even architecture. The ubiquity of his surreal images has made them seep into popular consciousness, making them highly recognizable even to those who do not know his name. Escher even stated that he did not want his works to be kept as limited editions, and that they should be reprinted as much as necessary, so what might be commercial exploitation is probably exactly what he wanted.
Escher would no doubt be happy to see how busy this exhibition is. Even on weekdays, large numbers of people are lining up patiently to study his work in reverential silence. This retrospective has about 180 works from all periods of his life, offering a thorough illustration of how his style developed over his lifetime. If you like to make use of audio-guides when you visit museums, this exhibition offers you free use of a Nintendo DS Lite, a hand-held, interactive device installed with software that apparently gives detailed explanations and compositional breakdowns of over thirty of the works on show. These kinds of guides strike me as gimmicky and distracting, especially as the guides dictate the order in which you have to look at the work, so I opted not to take one, but many people were using them.
Although I was fascinated by his images as a teenager and they were among the first to get me interested in art, I had never seen an original work until going to this exhibition. Despite the generally high-quality reproductions of Escher’s work that we are used to seeing, it is undoubtedly better to look at the originals; illustrations in books or online are unable to reproduce the depth and subtlety of tone in his monochrome prints. This exhibition also gives you the opportunity to appreciate the original scale of each work, as well as some of the unique, engraved metal plates and woodblocks that produced them.
Escher is mostly known for his surreal and impossible structures: buildings with columns that intertwine in defiance of the limits of human engineering and three-dimensional space, aqueducts or staircases that interlink in ways that ignore the laws of physics. Nevertheless, his work displays the visual side of mathematics and geometry, which fused with the inherent fascination that human beings have for surreal subversions of the everyday, is surely the source of his universal appeal: you don’t have to like art to like Escher.
Being able to study his earlier works from the 1920s and 30s, before the surrealist and geometric periods began, also gives a welcome sense of perspective in understanding his development as an artist. During these decades he traveled from Holland to the south of France and Italy. The easiness of travel between European states is taken for granted by contemporary Europeans, but back then it was a bigger undertaking, and one that had a profound effect on Escher. He fell in love with landscapes and architecture of this side of Europe that differed significantly from his homeland, eventually marrying in Italy and living in Rome from 1924 to 1935. During this time, Escher would choose to depict the most intense landscapes or interiors: storm clouds looming over a town perched on a cliff or hooded figures walking in procession through the archways of a crypt. Although these works portray normal scenes, they are nonetheless imbued with a surreal atmosphere that foreshadows the more overt distortions of reality that he made in his later work.
Looking at the overview of his work, it is possible to see a wide variety of potential connections with other 20th century artists. Aside from the obvious parallels with the work of surrealists such as Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, or the metaphysical overtones in the work of artists like Giorgio de Chirico, the strongly patterned, graphic-design element of his work even recalls Op Art artists like Bridget Riley. One notable self portrait from 1920 shows a young Escher sitting down, his figure dramatically defined in light and shade; while there is no known direct connection, it is a powerful, angular, black and white aesthetic that almost seems to foreshadow Frank Miller’s graphic novels, such as Sin City.
Despite Escher’s popularity, retrospectives of his work on a scale as large as this are not common. Given this exhibition’s popularity, it is best to visit early on a weekday. You can either make this show a weird and wonderful end to 2006, or are bizarre and beautiful beginning to 2007.