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4 Things You Didn’t Know About M.C. Escher

A new exhibition sheds light on an artist who, despite producing some of the most popular images in modern art, remains an enigma.

Even if you don’t know much about the man, you know M.C. Escher’s work. References to his mind-bending imagery can be spotted in films like Interstellar and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. His penchant for mazes and impossible reality has inspired many a video game designer, and his prints adorn the covers of ’60s rock albums. Yet he has never been fully embraced by the art world.

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“[Escher] has to be one of the top 10 most recognized artists of the 20th century, but MoMA and Tate would never give him a show, he’s never had a show of any size in France,” said Patrick Elliot, chief curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. “That was part of the interest for me, the paradox of his work being incredibly famous, but no one knows his name.” In a new exhibit, The Amazing World of M.C. Escher, the museum sheds light on the life of a man who, despite producing some of the most popular images in modern art, remains an enigma. Here are four things you might not know about M.C. Escher.

Day and Night

1. He Loved Architecture and Islamic Art
Escher studied architecture briefly before switching to graphic arts, and the influence of his early studies can be seen in works that feature distorted or reinvented buildings, like Ascending and Descending and Relativity. After a trip to Granada, Spain, he became fascinated with Islamic art composed of repeated patterns that created visual puzzles. His obsession with details and technical perfection are in full display in the mystifying prints Drawing Hands and Reptiles, two of his most famous works that play with the paradoxical nature of art and illusion.

2. Hippies Helped Him Gain Recognition
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Escher’s work gained recognition, due to the emerging appreciation of two very different subcultures: mathematicians and hippies. Mathematicians like Escher for his use of complex mathematical concepts, but hippies were the ones who dubbed him the “godfather of psychedelic art.” When Rolling Stone sent Escher a copy of its 1970 feature on him, introducing him to American mainstream culture, he scribbled a question mark in the corner. And when a different Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger wrote a fan letter, Escher wrote back asking him not to refer to him by his first name.

Relativity, 1953

3. He Was Kind Of A Square
Elliot says Escher’s rigid formality was one of the reasons the artist never achieved the status of some of his contemporaries, though his work is just as popular. “He’s quite a square on the surface,” Elliot says. “He’s not a fascinating character like Salvador Dali, he didn’t play up the press, wear wacky clothes and a mustache, and hang out in Paris. He wasn’t interested in abstraction or cubism. He was a quiet guy, interested in his work.” The fact that he wasn’t associated with any particular art movement might also be why he has never been taken seriously by the art world; however, it’s also likely the reason for his ubiquitousness in popular culture. “You can see the imagination and the technique,” Elliot says. “You don’t need to know a thing about the history of art to appreciate his work.”

4. Video Game Designers Love Him
Escher’s stunning representation of three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional drawings, as well as his fantastic world-building techniques in works like Metamorphosis and Relativity, make him an influential figure for video game designers and digital artists today.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is on exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art through September 2015.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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