M.C. Esher and Leonardo da Vinci at NCMA … As I entered the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC to interview David Steel, Curator of European Art at NCMA, all I could imagine was being in the same room with the artwork of two of my all-time favorite artists. The Worlds of M. C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination exhibit on one side and Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind exhibit on the other side. I was really more excited about seeing Leonardo’s work at first, but I had no idea how much the two had in common mentally until seeing M.C. Esher’s process, thought patterns, patience, and brain games. The Codex Leicester is a 500-year-old notebook from inventor, scientist, and artist Leonardo da Vinci. Named after the Earl of Leicester, who purchased the 72-page manuscript in 1717. It is composed of 18 sheets of paper, each folded in half and written in the artist’s famed “mirror writing.” Together with the rough sketches and drawings accompanying them, the notes offer a glimpse into one of the greatest minds in history. The central theme is water, but this quickly expands into astronomy, lighting, shade, and mechanics. The Codex is the only one of Leonardo’s manuscripts in North America and on loan to the NCMA from Bill Gates.
To begin the interview (below) and tour with David Steel, we enter the brain games of M.C. Esher. The Worlds of M. C. Escher exhibit is comprised of more than 130 of Esher’s woodcuts, lithographs, wood engravings, and mezzotints; as well as numerous drawings, watercolors, wood blocks, and lithographic stones never before exhibited. The exhibition highlights Escher’s explorations of nature, mathematics, science, and the realm of his imagination. Escher’s best-known prints will be on view, as well as his lesser-known portraits and Italian landscapes. In the most comprehensive Escher exhibition ever presented in the United States as explained in our interview with exhibition curator David Steel. As we walked through the exhibit discussing Esher’s work, all I could think about in the back of my mind was how much time all this took the artist and you could feel the love, hate, pain, suffering and pure madness of the artist inside. The brain games of life illustrated by a master print maker searching for the same thing every artists searches for, happiness within. The sounds of Bach seemed to bounce off the walls even though no music was playing inside the halls of the exhibit with angels and devils spinning in circles as if I was standing inside Esher’s brain watching the play unfold. Like most artists, Esher talked about the future being hopeless for the world and this is why the great artists create works of art which place them into other worlds of hope and maybe even happiness. Walking back through the show in my mind again, I see the true impossible became possible in Esher’s world and I would have never really understood the true artist inside before seeing this collection in person. Enough of my opinion, go see this exhibit and tell all your friends about the M. C. Escher and Leonardo da Vinci exhibits at the NCMA before it’s too late. Also make sure to watch or read the interview in full below.
INTERVIEW with David Steel of NCMA
Who is David Steel? I’m David Steel, I’m curator of European art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. My specialty field is Italian Renaissance and Baroque art.
Can you tell us about The Worlds of M. C. Escher exhibit at the museum until January 17, 2016? I’ve always wanted to do an Escher show, and a few years ago we were offered a show. Certain people here didn’t think that we should do it. I think they thought that Escher probably wasn’t a real artist, or at least good enough for the North Carolina Museum of Art. I put that on hold, but maybe three years ago I started thinking that an Escher show would be a really good thing for the museum, because people know Escher. Even if they don’t know his name they know his work. When I worked at the National Gallery, I was able to see lots of Escher prints when I was working at the prints and drawings department at the National Gallery. When the gallery did their show, it was the best attended show the National Gallery’s ever done. Bigger than King Tut, bigger than all the other shows they’ve done. I was able to use that and say, “Well, it’s the most popular show the National Gallery’s ever done, and I think it would do really well here.” I found out about an Escher collector in Winston, Salem. I called him up and said, “I’d really like to come see your collection.” I spent a day and a half going through his collection, and I told him that I was thinking of writing a catalog or a book on Escher. He said, “Do you know collector so and so?” I said, “I’ve never heard of him.” He picks up the phone, calls collector number two and says, “This guy’s pretty serious about what he’s going to do, he’d like to see your collection.” A couple weeks later I went up to see collector two, and then collector two after I’d spent two and a half days said, “Do you know collector three, four, and five?” I said, “No. Never heard of them.” Again he picked up the phone, called three, four and five, so eventually I went to Texas,Oregon, and California to view these collections. When I saw the kinds of things they had in their collection, I knew I could do an Escher show that wasn’t like any other Escher show that had ever been done. That’s when I got really excited, and that’s when I came back to the director, the senior staff and said, “We can do something that’s going to be really special.”
How do you approach an exhibit of this magnitude? I think there are things about this show, like the way you go through the show, it’s roughly chronological. I wanted to show Escher really in 3D. I wanted to show how he translated the ideas that he had in his mind onto paper, so there are wood block and there are drawings so that you can follow the process from his first inkling of an idea to the final print. When you look at an Escher in a book, all you see is the final print; you see it in reproduction and it’s flat, glossy, black and white. It doesn’t resonate the way when you look at an Escher, a real print here at the museum, it’s 100 times better.
How do you think Escher’s architectural training maybe controlled some of his other drawing in the future, once he went into graphic design? He only studied architecture for about a year and a half. He basically flunked math, and so he met a print maker at the school that he was going to in Harlem, and I think that just opened up a world. He was always interested in drawing, but I think when this print maker showed what he could do with the print making process, I think it just changed Escher’s life. He was fortunate enough to have parents who believed in what he was doing. His father was an engineer, he had a brother who was a crystalographer, another brother who was an engineer. The DNA was there, but I think what Escher did with that DNA was different from everyone else in his family. Like any passion, once you know, you know. I think for the rest of Escher’s life it was how do I get what I have in my mind, these ideas that I have, these things that I’ve seen, how do I get them from mind to paper? When he gets to those late architectural drawings, illusions, brain games is what Escher called them, I think that early training that he had, plus the fact that he was an incredible draftsman, it just all came together. The thing about Escher is even though he knew architecture, the architectural things that he was making prints of aren’t regular architecture. They’re brain games.
There was something said about music inspiring Escher. Did you find out much about how music did inspire some of this work? He was especially passionate about Bach. He actually called Bach “Father Bach.” When you look at some of Bach’s music, you can see the kind of structure that Bach’s music has, and I think that really appealed to Escher. His favorite piece of music was one of the Goldberg variations, and it was funny when he was being honored by Holland they said, “We’re going to have this ceremony, what do you want to do?” He said, “I want this Goldberg variation played” and he even named the pianist that he wanted to have play it. There is one really great Bach piece that’s a lot like a mobius strip, where Bach plays the melody first, then he plays it in reverse, and then he plays the frontwards and the backwards together. It’s just like a mobius strip, when you look at it it looks like that. I think music, it’s not a tool, but Escher always said that when he was feeling a little uninspired, he could listen to Bach and Bach would bring him back to where he needed to be.
With the title Nature, Science, and Imagination, how do you think all those intersect? I think when Escher was in Italy, he really studied nature. I think coming from Holland, cold, damp, flat, I think when he got to Italy it was like being in Eden, and I think he really, really paid attention to the nature around him; in studying nature and then making those prints, his craft just became superb. I think science, I wanted that in the title because the first people who collected Escher’s art were scientists, mathematicians, and Escher wrote that he felt like he had more in common with mathematicians than with artists. I think imagination speaks for itself here.
What are common misconceptions about being a curator? I think the frame of reference everybody is like Ross on Friends. That we’re kind of weird and nebbishy, and that our tastes are esotericbut I think every curator I know got into the business because they loved art, and because they wanted to spend time looking at art and thinking about art. We’re just as passionate about art as an engineer is passionate about bridges, or jet engines, or whatever. We’re not all uptight. We’re actually, I wouldn’t say normal, but I think we have a very broad view of the world, and I think the great thing about my job is I learn something new every day. If you had told me five years ago that I was going to be thinking about Escher and Leonardo, I wouldn’t have believed you. As my kids say, I’d be really good at Jeopardy.
How would you define art to the world? I don’t know that I can define art, but I have a sort of way that I define good art or great art, and for me great art is better the second time that you look at it than the first, and it’s better the third time that you look at it than the second. Escher meets my criterion for what great art is.
What would you tell an up and coming artist that’s dreaming of being a famous artist, or living that lifestyle? I would say use your eyes, use your mind, and take time to look and think.
How do the readers find out more about David Steel, The Worlds of M. C. Escher exhibit and what’s happening at the North Carolina Museum of Art? We have a really great website, www.ncartmuseum.org. You can find out what’s here, what’s coming, what we have. Paintings, programs, movies, everything we do is on that website.
Website – ncma.org
Facebook – facebook.com/ncartmuseum
Instagram – instagram.com/ncartmuseum
Twitter – twitter.com/ncartmuseum
Pinterest – pinterest.com/ncartmuseum
Vimeo – vimeo.com/ncma
Review and Interview by Donald Perry for3dotmag.com
*Biography information collected from the NCMA, M.C. Esher and the web.
About M.C. Esher | Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) is one of the world’s most famous graphic artists. He is most famous for his so-called impossible constructions, such as Ascending and Descending, Relativity, his Transformation Prints, such as Metamorphosis I, Metamorphosis II and Metamorphosis III, Sky & Water I or Reptiles. But he also made some wonderful, more realistic work during the time he lived and traveled in Italy. M.C. Escher, during his lifetime, made 448 lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings and over 2000 drawings and sketches. Like some of his famous predecessors, – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer and Holbein-, M.C. Escher was left-handed. Apart from being a graphic artist, M.C. Escher illustrated books, designed tapestries, postage stamps and murals. He was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, as the fourth and youngest son of a civil engineer. After 5 years the family moved to Arnhem where Escher spent most of his youth. After failing his high school exams, Maurits ultimately was enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. Find out more about M.C. Esher online at: www.mcescher.com. © 2015 The M. C. Escher Company, All rights reserved.