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At new M.C. Escher exhibit, BYU MOA takes a deeper dive

November 20, 2017 GMT

Mick Jagger wanted M.C. Escher, but the feeling wasn’t mutual.

As the story goes, Jagger wrote Escher in 1969, asking him to design the cover art for a Rolling Stones’ greatest hits collection. Jagger didn’t address him as M.C., though. Instead, he called Escher by his first name, Maurits. Escher wrote Jagger’s assistant, declining the offer, and finished his letter with, “By the way, please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him.”

Pop culture’s embrace of Escher’s surreal art, and Escher’s subsequent dismissal of that embrace, is telling. Escher made tons of art over his long career, but didn’t consider himself an artist in the traditional sense. Mathematicians loved his work — it visualized concepts and answered questions they were tackling in their field — but Escher denied knowing anything about math. The counter-culture of the 1960s loved his work’s surrealist nature, and is largely responsible for bringing Escher into the mainstream, but Escher resented the association.

“So he sort of deliberately distanced himself from almost every world in which he partially could fit,” said Kenneth Hartvigsen, curator of American art at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art.

The museum debuted its newest exhibit, “Other Worlds: The Art of M.C. Escher,” on Friday night. With a slew of Escher pieces on loan from the Herakleidon Museum in Greece, “Other Worlds” signals a specific kind of appreciation that’s been a long time coming.

“I think the fine art world/museum world has been the last party to get excited about Escher,” Hartvigsen said. “Most of the people who know him didn’t necessarily come to him through a museum experience. He’s the kind of guy you see on T-shirts and posters and mugs.”

A DIFFERENT, DEEPER PORTRAIT

According to Hartvigsen, these different (and often non-artistic) entry points to Escher’s work create some interesting opportunities and challenges for the museum. There is the Escher that people know and love, but there’s a lot more to him than that. Hartvigsen and his fellow MOA colleagues wanted to give patrons a more comprehensive peak into Escher’s unparalleled style.

Experiencing Escher’s original pieces in person, as opposed to seeing them on a T-shirt or poster, is a totally different experience, Hartvigsen said. Escher worked in prints, making his pieces via woodblocks and lithographs. And he didn’t use a printing press. Carving his detailed pieces into woodblocks, Escher would ink the block, put the paper down, then use an ivory spoon to rub the paper. Looking at Escher’s original prints up close, their handmade nature is evident.

Escher’s pieces were small, too — not the large wall pieces that every popular M.C. Escher poster might suggest. There’s an intimacy there.

“You’re more aware of this man actually working against these difficult media, and creating something that is just astounding in its clarity and depth,” Hartvigsen explained.

While Escher’s signature style — the otherworldly, warped, seemingly impossible architecture that Hartvigsen describes as “intellectual gaming” — dominated his career for 40 years, Escher’s journey to that style gets overlooked. In this, the MOA exhibit tells a more complete story. After getting his start in his home country of Denmark, Escher moved to Rome in 1923. While there, he met his wife, Jetta Umiker, and they started a family. He depicted Italian architecture during these years, and Hartvigsen described these particular works as ones “created from a place of complete joy.” He was happy, and it showed.

Maddie Blonquist, a curatorial fellow at the MOA, has assisted with the exhibit, and said she and other MOA colleagues wanted to create a more intimate, personal experience with Escher’s work.

“His prints are really accessible and well-known,” she said, “but as we’ve delved more and more into his life, we feel like his work was a way to kind of cope with the world around him and restore order to some of the chaos he was living in.”

That chaos? The rise in Italian fascism preceding World War II. Escher and his family left Italy for Switzerland in 1935 as Mussolini’s influence grew.

“And that’s when the bizarre puzzles and illusions come in,” Hartvigsen explained. “There’s almost this sense of a personal rupture that happens in his life.” This new style, Hartvigsen continued, almost feels like recognition of Escher’s loss: The idyllic nature of his early Rome years was gone, and could not be reclaimed.

THE SOUND OF ESCHER

Music was one of Escher’s primary passions. When Escher got stuck on a piece, he turned to music, which helped him approach his work with new eyes. The MOA’s exhibit incorporates music in a way the museum hasn’t before, in the form of a Bösendorfer Grand Piano equipped with Disklavier technology. On loan from Baldassin Pianos in Draper, this special piano can record performances as they’re played on the piano itself, then replay them precisely as they were first performed.

The MOA enlisted student pianists from BYU’s school of music. These students recorded 10 selections on the piano, each corresponding to a piece in the exhibit. These range from songs Escher loved, to songs inspired by Escher, to ones that display stylistic cohesion with Escher’s work. This kind of interdisciplinary direction, Blonquist said, is increasingly common in the art world, and she thinks it’s where art museums need to move.

“We’re making a big statement here,” she said. “We all felt pretty strongly about having a live experience.”

“Every M.C. Escher piece that you know of is probably in this show,” Hartvigsen added. “We’ve got all the greatest hits. But we also have a deeper bench here.”