The big ticket at the Boca Raton Museum of Art right now — and we're talking big as in more than 300 items — is "The Magical World of M.C. Escher," a sweeping survey of the life and career of the Dutch artist. The show is both exhaustive and exhausting — if ever an exhibition called for judicious editing, this is it.
How big is it? It's actually two shows in one. A condensed version might have skimped on the artist's lesser-known work in favor of the works for which he's most famous, and I'd hate to see what is arguably Escher's finest art sacrificed at the altar of his success.
Maurits Cornelis Escher, later nicknamed Mauk, was born in the northern Netherlands in 1898. He didn't do especially well in secondary school — not even in math, which he used so well in his work. But he took an interest in drawing early on and learned how to make woodcuts, an exacting skill that would prove invaluable. He also displayed an aptitude for architecture, which he studied from 1919 to 1922.
Escher hit the road after his schooling, traveling to southern Spain and Italy, where, in 1923, he met a Swiss woman, Jetta Umiker, who became his wife a year later. They settled in Rome for nearly a dozen years and spent their springs traveling the country.
The study of architecture and the Italian travels were especially crucial to Escher's development as an artist. As one of the catalog essays points out, as much as 40 percent of his output dates to his 11 years in Italy, and it is that body of work that's so easily overshadowed by what came later.
The triumph of this exhibition is that it restores the Italian work to its rightful place in Escher's oeuvre. A large section of the show is devoted to the artist's Italian landscapes, most of which are nothing short of breathtaking. The buildings that perched on the hills and nestled in the valleys of Italy clearly captivated Escher, and in print after print he displays the virtuosity they brought out in him. If you don't think of the medium of woodcuts as especially expressive, take a look at these — you'll be wowed. Escher's works in chalk and pencil are often equally remarkable.
In 1934, the rise of fascism in Italy forced Escher and his wife to flee to Switzerland for a couple of years. They moved briefly to Belgium, then on to the Netherlands, and Escher resided in his homeland until his death in 1972.
Escher brought all he had learned in his life and travels to bear on this work, and much of it is indeed impressive stuff. The Escher who is so widely known and admired is the Escher of the late 1930s and onward. This is the Escher who produced an astonishing body of work that traffics in all manner of optical illusions — renderings of buildings that look realistic but defy the laws of physics, for example, or images in which, say, birds and fishes morph into one another, not thanks to computer imaging but by way of old-fashioned mathematical rigor.
Escher's success with his most eye-bending art was such that at one point Mick Jagger solicited him to create a record sleeve for the Rolling Stones. Escher graciously declined. (Andy Warhol, it's worth mentioning, didn't.) The artist also captured the imagination of unscrupulous entrepreneurs who felt free to lift his designs and re-create them for black-light posters. The exhibition includes a small, darkened space displaying such posters.
The co-opting of his imagery irritated Escher, understandably, and no doubt he would be appalled to see his work reproduced these days on coffee mugs and T-shirts and the like. Such is the price of fame, not to mention an estate eager to cash in.
The acclaim granted to Escher in the last three decades of his life was well-deserved. However, that fame came at the expense of his most extraordinary body of work. The later work may have put Escher on the map, but it's the art from the Italian period that puts him in the company of such masters as Rembrandt and Dürer. Those Italian landscapes and buildings supply much of the real magic in "The Magical World of M.C. Escher."