MANCHESTER, N.H. — Maurits Cornelis Escher, magician and geek, has had his impossible, twisty-turny worlds reincarnated on “The Simpsons” and by LEGO masterminds. His tessellating patterns of morphing fish and birds have appeared on silk ties for decades.
Now Escher, the extraordinary Dutch graphic artist, has a sweeping exhibition of more than 180 prints and drawings up in “M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion,” at the Currier Museum of Art. One passionate collector, Paul Firos, donated this trove to the Herakleidon Museum in Athens. It’s a full-to-bursting retrospective that follows the curious peregrinations of Escher’s genius, from his early Italian landscapes with their steep perspectives and canny use of light and shadow to his deep dive into mathematics and illusion.
Escher, who was born in 1898 and died in 1972, was out of synch with his art-world contemporaries. He wasn’t interested in Cubism, social realism, or Abstract Expressionism. In the 1930s, inspired by the mosaics at Alhambra, a Spanish castle, he began to work with tessellations — arrangements of shapes, like the Alhambra tiles, that cover a plane without overlapping or leaving gaps.
Then: What if that plane was curved? How to convey that curve in two dimensions? What tricks of drawing could he use to defy the eye, and create worlds and systems that looked logical but were actually impossible in three dimensions? Escher was making Op Art a quarter century before the Op Artists came on the scene.
No wonder he became so popular. His works are delicious puzzles, tickling at the brain. But is that all they are? “Reality and Illusion” effortlessly conveys the overheated engine of Escher’s intellect. Wandering the exhibit, I found myself searching for a little feeling, a little soul.
Still, the show is terrific fun. Not surprisingly, with his mind for how to put things together, Escher was a master printmaker. His mezzotints sing with subtle tones; the registration in his woodblock prints, often made with several blocks he carved himself, is flawless.
The seeds of his fascinations show up early. In illustrations he made for a philosophical text penned by his friend Adriaan van Stolk in 1921, he mirrored stylized goat forms, and sketched a reflected self-portrait in a sphere. His prints of the architecture and landscapes of Southern Italy set a template for certain later works.
Then Escher abandoned landscapes. In 1936 he began to experiment with interlocking patterns, and his aesthetic crystallized. “Metamorphosis II,” (1939-40), is a technical and optical feat: In 20 woodblocks across a horizontal scroll stretching roughly 16 feet, he describes a cycle, which begins and ends with text that morphs into a grid, then a chessboard, which leads to a rook-shaped lighthouse and a bridge and a cityscape — it goes on, and includes birds, insects, fish, and farmland. It’s virtuosic.
So are his enchanting circular prints, which investigate non-Euclidean geometry and the representation of space on a curved plane. His “Circle Limit” tessellations look like mandalas in which the pattern shrinks to tiny proportions toward the edges, as if receding.
Escher’s great gift was how he straddled math and art. He was a lay mathematician, and had been a lousy student. In order to understand mathematical propositions, he brought them to life with pictures of animals, people, and places, such as the tessellations of brown and green birds in his woodcut “Air,” their feathers raking neatly into one another.
He pushed at the boundary between two dimensions and three, in lithographs such as “Drawing Hands,” in which one hand draws the other, and “Reptiles,” in which a pattern of crawling lizards comes to life.
Some of his so-called “impossible worlds,” in which Escher employs optical conceits and multiple perspectives, suggest a wearying existentialism. That’s why the “Simpsons” version of “Relativity,” in which Homer and his family rush up and down an Escheresque never-ending staircase, feels so spot-on; the Simpsons never evolve.
On the other hand, the more Escher brings the human experience into his art, and the less his figures are mere cogs in his mathematical wheels, the more penetrating his work becomes.
“Print Gallery,” a marvelous lithograph in which a young man in a gallery regards a print, which depicts a gallery along a waterfront in which a young man. . . You get the picture. Escher made the image on a pin-wheeling grid, and it eddies like a banner in a riptide. It’s his only work here with a narrative as mind-bending as its form.
Then, those self-portraits in spheres suggest another level of inquiry. “Three Spheres II” has one at its center, amid two others, each with a different surface reflecting its surroundings in different ways.
Escher plays with vanishing points — that place beyond which we cannot see, that marker of infinity — all the time, flummoxing our sense of space. A self-portrait is also vanishing point, beyond which the artist cannot see or know himself. None of us can. Here, his investigations push past masterful tricks and puzzles into the nature of consciousness. Here, he begins to plumb mystery.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.