MC Escher delights in Dulwich

“Everything you can imagine is real”
At 10.15 last Saturday morning I was being enthralled by M C Escher. No, dear reader, Splendid Red had not overcooked it at the Palais de Dance or at a rap concert. I was actually nestled in that idyll of suburbia – Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Maurits Cornelis Escher is an artist and the gallery is holding a great retrospective this Michaelmas. I’m sure even the least artistic of souls would know Escher’s etchings of cuffed hands drawing on paper or of lizards morphing into textiles, not to mention the self-portrait using a spherical mirror.
I last visited Dulwich Gallery a year ago to see a David Hockney lithograph exhibition. The exhibition seemed slightly claustrophobic, though this may have been due to the small size of the exhibits. What was beyond doubt was that all too often I tripped over the fellow next to me – as a result it seemed more like a rugby ruck than relaxing Sunday looking at paintings.
Escher is venerated by the populous as a peculiar avant-garde surrealist – somewhat like a middle class Dali with a maths degree. However, the curator is at pains to point out that though Escher exhibits a glut of surrealist attributes he never spent time with them or was part of their movement.
One of the most fascinating aspects for me of visiting a retrospective is to learn where these fine artists came from; for all the intricate etchings and revered pictures that adorn the walls of students from Wigan to Brighton, what were the first cultural influences on this chap?
In the case of Escher, the answer is that he was born into a family of affluent intellectuals in Holland. He did not become a serious artist until he started travelling in the South of Italy. His detail and exquisite accuracy – which sometimes appears almost pedantic – is on show in these early paintings.
We have to wait a few more years until we meet Escher the surreal dreamer.
With age – the curator helps here by ignoring the current fashion for thematic arrangements and arranging the paintings chronologically – the artist’s ideas become bolder and less rooted in reality. With each picture becoming more like a sumptuous detachment from reality his mastery of the incredible artistic skills doesn’t diminish; in fact it becomes more resolute. He opens his doors of perception to us with a very measured mathematical Dutch veneer.  
As is invariably the case when one looks at paintings, one is less awestruck by those that have be reproduced thousands of times – one becomes almost de-sensitised to their its beauty. Instead, the only real pleasure comes from actually viewing it in the flesh.
Even so, as the rooms roll along, the viewer becomes absorbed into this wacky little Dutchman’s mind. His final piece, the sum of with all the knowledge he has acquired, is a glorious study of mathematics with stupendous snakes perfectly intertwined in it. 
The most shocking and surreal moment is when one steps out of the plain white exhibition and into the opulent permanent room, with their fine collection of the Pre-Raphelites and grand history paintings which are framed in auspicious gold. 
I implore the reader to go to see this wonderful exhibition that Dulwich has laid on. But do arrive early to avoid the bottlenecking in this small gallery! 


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