Monday, November 21, 2016

Escher in Rochester

M.C. Escher: " Reality and Illusions"
The Memorial Art Gallery
November - January 29, 2017

M.C. Escher, a Dutch artist of the 20th Century, is being given a large retrospective at The Memorial Art Gallery thru January called: "Reality and Illusions".  Many of the most recognizable images from Escher are on view along with descriptive panels that inform the viewing public of some of the mathematical paths that this artist took during his productive career.  Even the casual viewer will recognize the iconic images that Escher created including the endless staircase, the metamorphosis of birds and lizards, and the hands that draw themselves.

"Drawing Hands", 1948
by M. C. Escher

In an informative public lecture that I attended given by Doris Schattschneider, she described the youth of Maurits Cornelis ( M.C. ) Escher and how he decided upon studying the visual arts with a concentration on printmaking and drawing.  Escher later found an affinity with mathematical theory and application in a lifelong pursuit of visual paradox.  M. C. Escher gets you to think about what you are looking at in an active manner.  In some ways his artwork is an illustration of various forms of symmetry ( isometry ) and his art could be seen as the visual equivalent of mathematical principles.

M.C. Escher ( 1898 - 1972 )

There are 100 or so examples of the art of M.C. Escher on view at the Memorial Art Gallery and they range through his printmaking career in terms of process:  woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints.  Some of his earlier works are realist interpretations of landscape and town in graphic black and white. He also gets into minutiae - like the drop of water on a leaf seen below.

Dew Drop, 1948  ( mezzotint )

No doubt about it, Escher was an obsessive human being trying to touch the infinite through his insight into potential and transformation.  As an artist he developed a fascination with tiling the plane and how tiles fit together especially after visiting the Alhambra and looking at all the great tessellations one finds there.

Metamorphosis ll, 1948  ( woodcut )

I get involved with M.C. Escher's art and I am torn between wanting to see where all this artwork leads one to, and then wishing that he would break out of the grid and free himself from the lock and key he has for his obsessions.  Some of the remarks that the mathematician Doris Schattschneider made during her talk sounded very familiar to me in that M.C. Escher had no real natural aptitude for mathematics ( he was not a great student ) but something about the way things visually fit together represented for him a door that opened onto a new world and he just walked through and explored.

Escher's Flying fish

Doris Schattschneider produced a volume on Escher's artwork that details his experiments with 17 forms of symmetry, including reflections and translations of various sorts.  There are Escher's drawings that spell this out in a visual way - so that even if you don't understand the mathematical theory, you can begin to understand it through a visual metaphor.

Convex and Concave, 1955

As I have said and written before, the teaching of mathematics could be made richer for people like me, if teachers would open up the visual correlations that exist.  Escher is a good example to use.  Not that many people have the insight that M.C. Escher had, and then  to follow that path wherever it may lead, thankfully,  with conviction and  persistence.