The art of the impossible

Barcelona’s Les Drassanes venue hosts an exhibition by graphic artist M. C. Escher that has been to dozens of countries around the world

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), or more commonly M.C. Escher, is an artist whose name is little known to the general public. Yet his work is to be found everywhere, from movies to comics, video games, commercials, clothes and posters. Stairs leading nowhere, lizards in star-shaped cages and self-drawing hands are still very popular images half a century after his death.

Until September, over 200 Escher engravings are on display in Les Drassanes, the Royal Shipyards of Barcelona and home of the Maritime Museum, thanks to an agreement between the Barcelona city and provincial councils and the Italian company, Arthemisia-Evolucionarte, a specialist in organising exhibitions around the world. The Escher project is one of its most recent successes and it comes to the Catalan capital after having already toured a dozen cities.

At a time of so much hardship for local galleries, the decision to bring this franchised cultural product to Barcelona has caused controversy. Yet local politicians see it as an opportunity to revitalise the lower part of the Rambla, especially with the return of tourists in the offing. “We haven’t come to take anything away from the museums here but to add a quality product,” Jesús Rodríguez, the director of Arthemisia-Evolucionarte in Spain, said in the exhibition’s presentation last month.

The Escher exhibition is the first in a three-year agreement, during which other big names in the world of art will also make an appearance, most likely Chagall and Monet. Costing 13 euros, this exhibition is a complete retrospective that is nourished by the collection of Federico Giudiceandrea, who is also the curator. It has taken Giudiceandrea decades to collect his Escher engravings, which are to be found in only a few hands and which can be worth up to 200,000 euros. He says his first Escher cost him 50 euros, but “this collection is worth millions today.”

Escher did not experience success until the end of his life, although the curator explains that “he did not need to live on his art. His wealthy family kept him.” Escher was Dutch, but he found his inspiration in Italy, where he lived for 13 years, until Mussolini’s rise. “The day his son was forced to wear fascist clothing, he packed his bags and went to Switzerland,” says the curator.

The other country that fascinated him was Spain, and the Alhambra in Granada amazed him. He made two trips there, and the historic site’s famous tessellations would become a surreal version of arabesque geometric ornamentation.

Escher is often associated with the Surrealists, but the truth is that he stood apart and was more of a solitary introvert. He was largely misunderstood by the art world due to his obsession with the laws of science. Yet that is also why he was loved most by mathematicians. The exhibition organised for him at a mathematicians’ congress was the beginning of eschermania.

“Then the hippie movement took over, and they made psychedelic posters of his designs,” says Giudiceandrea. However, their adding colour to his engravings was something that made Escher very angry. Musicians of the time, such as Pink Floyd, also began to use his images for their album covers. However, the only one who had the courtesy to ask for permission was Mick Jagger. Escher’s response was a resounding no. The lead singer of the Rolling Stones wanted to use an engraving in which a frog is slowly transformed into a bird. That engraving is in this exhibition, just before the end of the tour, where there is also a large shop full of Escher merchandise.

art exhibition

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