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The Amazing World of M. C. Escher

Rachel Giles

Dulwich Picture Gallery
Until January 17, 2016

In 1969, Mick Jagger wrote to M. C. Escher asking him to design an album cover. 'Who is this Jagger person?' Escher apparently grumbled, and turned him down. It wasn't that Maurits Cornelis Escher, by now famous for his tessellations, impossible buildings and imaginary worlds, knew nothing of the real world. He was just too busy working, subverting the rules that we all follow to understand reality, and pushing the boundaries of printmaking to their limits.

By 1961, Escher had huge appeal in popular culture, with a strong following in the hippie movement - he was seen as the godfather of psychedelia by some. He explained why he felt his works appealed to the layman:

My subjects are […] often playful. I cannot help mocking all our unwavering certainties. It is, for example, great fun deliberately to confuse two and three dimensions, the plane and space, or to poke fun at gravity.

The playful element of Escher's work makes him popular with children and teenagers, but as adults we often seem to outgrow him. Art institutions have generally turned a blind eye, in Britain at least. Only one of his works is held in a UK collection, and, surprisingly, there has never been a major show of his work in this country. This exhibition aims to set that right, and to argue, through a chronological and connoisseurial approach, that he deserves a place in art history. All the Escher postcards I had as a teenager - of Day and Night (1938), Other World (1947) and Waterfall (1961) - the iconic masterpieces, and more, can be found in this show, in full-size eye-watering detail.

It's difficult to place Escher in a convenient corner of a canon, however - and that is part of his appeal. He was born in 1898 in the Netherlands. This was only 5 months before Magritte in neighbouring Belgium; and despite dreams and irrationality featuring in his work, he never associated with the Surrealists. He was unfashionably figurative in style, embracing printmaking at a time when painting was seen as the expressive medium of abstraction. Escher was more influenced by the warped fantasy of Bosch or Van der Weyden's crystalline realism, or Renaissance studies of architectural perspective and geometry.

Escher's printmaking is masterly - whether he's depicting the phosphorescence cast in the sea by playing dolphins or an impossible Italianate building. Woodcuts, wood engravings and linocuts feature in his early work: crisp, luscious studies of an Italian hilltown, cuboid dwellings clinging to a hillside; the individual hairs in his beard in a startling self portrait; a cat's fur, or a movingly expressive study of his wife, Jetta. Later, he moved onto lithography, which allowed even finer detail and almost photorealistic clarity. It's this realism that draws you in and then tricks you into believing the impossible.

Metamorphosis II, at nearly 4 metres, is Escher's longest print, a virtuoso display of his obsession with tessellation - words morphing into squares, squares wriggling into lizards, lizards crystallising into hexagons, hexagons releasing honeybees, and so it goes on. If the print was displayed with both ends touching, it would form an endless loop of transformation. The eternal is a preoccupation of Escher's; nature has an undergirding logic, and thus a sense of beauty and order.

Escher may now find a younger, digital-savvy audience. There were plenty of teenagers at Dulwich when I visited, declaring his work was cool. His prints have the same playfulness of pattern and repetition, the same reality folding into new realities which we now see in film, 3D and virtual reality gaming: although Escher's forays into infinity were flat, they'll make sense to minds accustomed to the aesthetics of computers and digital art.

The amazing world in the title of this exhibition is not just the world inside Escher's head. It's our own world of nature, mathematics, and form. Escher was fascinated by the geometry of crystals, leaves and insects. In Puddle (1952), filigree patterns of trees and grasses are reflected in a pool in a tyre track on a muddy path. But look again and we see the moon, and we realise we're not looking down in the world below us but up at the world above: it is space and eternity in a puddle.

Go and see the prints up close, and enjoy the chance to see them at full size, rather than on a screen, in a book or on a postcard. I've never heard so many people at one show exclaim aloud in delight, but perhaps I should not have been surprised. Escher wrote to his friend Bruno Ernst in 1956: 'Maybe I focus exclusively on the element of wonder, and therefore I also try to evoke a sense of wonder in my viewers.'