Up is Down, Backwards is Forwards

“Virtual Realities: The Art of M. C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” presents the most comprehensive look at the output from visionary Norwegian artist Mauritius Cornelis Escher (1898 – 1972) ever displayed.

The new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston displays over 400 “prints, drawings, watercolors, printed fabrics, constructed objects, wood and linoleum blocks, lithographic stones, sketchbooks, and the artist’s working tools.”

Escher’s tool cabinet greets the viewers in the hall that leads to eleven galleries of visual opulence.

After this death in the mid-70s the work of Escher was popular and a perceptive metaphor for the expanding consciousness of society best coined by Tom Wolfe as “The Me Decade.”

Escher’s one-of-a-kind art makes impossible architecture logical. His imagery was adopted by modern culture with the slip-sliding ease of a Möbius Strip.

Figures walk upstairs at the same time they’re walking downstairs. Up is down and forwards in backwards in Escher’s world.

Sachs, who purchased ninety-percent of Escher’s art from his sons in 1980, speaking at a media preview concurred that the ever-expanding-look of Escher was first embraced by “hippies before rapidly going mainstream.

“Some of the first promotors of Escher’s art during the ‘60s in San Francisco now have their names etched in stone at the Museum of Modern Art on a wall reserved for million dollar donors.”

Escher’s images suggest a world beyond common dimensionality that had defined art from the classic era to the exploding categories of the previous century. Most Escher images depict multiple layers of reality. The air above, the surface world, and what exists beneath. 

In Escher’s own words: “Before photography was invented perspective was always associated with the horizon. Even at the time of the Renaissance it was known that not only do the horizon lines of a building meet at point on the horizon – the famous vanishing point – but also the vertical lines meet downward at the nadir and upwards at the zenith.”

While this show proudly offers views of classic Escher like Belvedere, Another World II, Bond of Union to name but three there are sections devoted to Escher’s early drawings of the Italian countryside along with a series of Rome By Night; a room emerged in black light highlighting psychedelic posters based on Escher imagery; a Relativity Room where attendees remove their shoes and step onto a set designed to make you look large or small depending on where you’re standing; and countless juxtapositions of original wood blocks in glass cabinets next to the resulting art, such as Day and Night.

If there was an Escher image that nailed the mood of the psychedelic movement it would be Relativity, a classic staircase woodcut that premiered in 1953. The depiction of staircases that transcend space and time fit perfectly with what Aldous Huxley referred to as the “opening the doors of perception,” from his book of the same name published in 1954.

But Escher didn’t create his art to fit into the perspective of any given decade. His impossible geometric designs give traditional symmetry isometric propulsion.

Look for referential viewpoints along the exhibit that include everything from the Droste Effect, where an image recursively appears within itself and here illustrated with a 1904 chocolate box, to a wall of rock LPs that use Escher images.

The most iconic is the cover of “Mott the Hoople” the UK group’s first album that includes covers of Doug Sahm, Ray Davies and Sonny Bono and based on Escher’s Reptiles, a 1943 lithograph.

The exhibit is so dense with detail that you will want to pace yourself and consider visiting more than once.

“Virtual Realities: The Art of M. C. Escher from the Michael S. Sachs Collection” is running until September 5, 2022.

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