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The exhibition features more than 150 original prints by MC Escher, as well as several works by other artists who have been inspired by his techniques, including WOHA architect Richard Hassell's large tessellated fish artwork (above).
Escher's masterpiece prints, such as Drawing Hands (above) and Relativity play with multiple perspectives and geometry.
Escher's masterpiece prints, such as Drawing Hands and Relativity (above) play with multiple perspectives and geometry.

Geometric sorcery

MC Escher is underrated in the world of art but is widely revered by mathematicians and scientists.
Sep 23, 2016 5:50 AM

ANYONE living in the 21st century would have seen several of MC Escher's images - although his name might not so quickly come to mind. The Dutchman, who lived from 1898 to 1972, was one of the greatest graphic artists of all time. But he is sorely underrated in the artistic community, and his works are not feted in the way so many modern and contemporary masters are.

If anything, his artworks are more revered among scientists and mathematicians. His formal experimentations with tessellations, geometry and multiple levels of reality have gained him countless fans in the scientific community, including legendary mathematician-physicist Roger Penrose and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Chen Ning Yang.

All of this makes him a perfect match for Marina Bay Sands' ArtScience Museum, whose mission is to explore the relationship between art, science and technology. Its new show titled Journey to Infinity: Escher's World of Wonder opens on Saturday and features more than 150 artworks by Escher, as well as selected works by artists who inspired him or were inspired by him.

In one of his earlier masterpieces, Drawing Hands (1948), Escher created the image of two hands, each drawing the other into existence with a pencil. At the same time, the viewer is made aware of the image's artificiality: though the hands are drawn realistically, they appear on a piece of paper that is obviously two-dimensional. The image throws the viewer into a conceptual and existential tailspin.

Similarly, in Relativity (1953), multiple visual and gravitational perspectives appear in a room full of staircases where one could be climbing up and down without actually getting anywhere. It's an image that would spawn multiple copycats, including films such as 1986's Labyrinth where Jennifer Connelly wanders through a maze of strange staircases.

Curator Federico Giudiceandrea explains: "What we've tried to show in the various parts of this exhibition is the evolution of Escher over the years. We begin with the time he studied graphic design at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in the Netherlands.

"We then move to the time he spent in Sicily by showing his landscape sketches. Then we move to Granada where Escher was inspired by Islamic art and the geometric tessellations of the Alhambra Palace. We see how he developed the art form - where Islamic art uses only geometric shapes, Escher began to incorporate animals and daily objects.

"Subsequently, we move to a room where we see some of his masterpieces that were much admired by the scientific community, especially after his one-man exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which coincided with the International Mathematical Conference - mathematicians love his work!

"He was also loved by the 1970s hippie community who thought his art was so trippy and psychedelic because he took drugs - for the record, he did not take drugs."

Dr Giudiceandrea joked that even Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones was a fan and wanted to commission Escher to design the cover for the band's album, Through The Past Darkly. But Escher was not a fan of Jagger and flatly said no.

Despite these plaudits, however, Escher was not a top-selling artist and did not get the widespread recognition he hoped for. According to Mr Giudiceandrea, even his wife and children were unhappy with him because he was too obsessed with his art and neglected them. Escher was depressed when he died in 1972 at the age of 73 in a hospital in Hilversum. This retrospective exhibition goes a small way in recognising his contribution to the art and science world.

One of his biggest fans is Richard Hassell, one half of the architectural duo WOHA which designed buildings such as the Parkroyal on Pickering and NOMU. Hassell has been creating artworks inspired by Escher since he was 15. Two of them, including a large tessellated steel fish sculpture, are on display at the exhibition.

Hassell notes: "I come from a family of scientists and mathematicians. You do find that people who love Escher enjoy music, maths and physics. There's something about how Escher makes things go together so intricately, the way they refract or transform reality, that's more cerebral than emotional.

"Interestingly, as the decades pass, I find that his stature has grown despite him not being fashionable in the art world. New generations of people who are not necessarily embedded in the art culture are discovering how extraordinary his art is."

  • Journey to Infinity: Escher's World of Wonder opens at MBS' ArtScience Museum on Sept 24 and runs till the first quarter of 2017. Curator Federico Giudiceandrea will give a guided tour on Sept 24 at 11.30am and Richard Hassell will hold a discussion of Escher with artists and scientists at 2pm