Yesterday I had an opportunity to visit the National Art Gallery in Ottawa to see special exhibits of two favourite artists, Alex Colville and M.C. Escher. I didn’t realize until viewing the juxtaposition of their works that they shared a structural methodology.
Canadian Alex Colville (1920 – 2013) was born in Toronto, Ontario, but lived a good part of his life in Nova Scotia. Dutch-born Maurits Cornelis (M.C.) Escher (1898 – 1972) began his lithographic career in Italy, lived in Switzerland and Belgium, and returned to Holland in 1941. They may never have met in person, but an underlying thread helped them become great artists: a basis of mathematical precision.
The exhibition of Colville’s works includes many preparatory sketches. Sometimes it would take several years for a preliminary idea to become a finished painting. In the sketches, one can see geometric precision and angles to assist the alignment and look of the final scene.
The results are objectively impressive. (Four of Colville’s paintings are visible separately as part of the Overlook Hotel décor in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining.) ‘To Prince Edward Island’ (1965) displays a scene of a man and woman on a ferry wherein she is looking directly at the viewer through binoculars with only the man’s arms seen behind her. This unsettling idea of two bodies with one almost hidden by the other is a common Colville theme. Also, geometry is evidenced by the straight lines, called ‘crisp lines’ by the exhibition curator, of the woman’s arms, the bench, the man’s arms, and the horizon in the background. Another famous, more ominous work is ‘Horse and Train’ (1954) in which a horse is galloping along railway tracks with a steam locomotive coming quickly toward it, the scene otherwise isolated and dimly lit. Dogs were also a popular subject, chasing birds on a farm, or calmly still with their masters, as in ‘Dog and Groom’ (1991) where the dog is looking directly into the eye of the viewer. Many of Colville works evoke a sense of mystery as to what has just happened or what is going to occur, within the seemingly simple, peaceful surroundings.
M.C. Escher is probably better known world-wide. His perspective: “A graphic artist is something of a troubadour; he sings and repeats the same song in every print he makes of his woodcut, copperplate, or lithographic stone…if he runs out, he can print a new set in which every work is just as perfect, original, and complete, as long as the plate is not worn out”. Whether printmaking from linocut, woodcut, or wood engraving, his adherence to geometric forms, initially true to scale and later featuring disorientation of structure and dimension, generated the works for which he is known.
A good example of his evolution from creating landscapes to reconstituting them into mindscapes is shown in the initial print ‘Aeroplane above a Snowy Landscape’ (1934) altered in ‘Day and Night’ (1938). In the former subject, the view is dark from above a bi-plane flying over a village with a meandering river surrounded by farmlands. In the latter work, there is a change from right to left of light to dark, birds (replacing the plane) evolving from the dark on the right flying into the light, intersecting birds evolving from the light on the left flying into the dark. This juxtaposition of credible subjects with disoriented space, most classically with his ‘metamorphosis’ series, is the most dramatic aspect of Escher’s works. Even in a self-portrait, ‘Hand with Reflecting Sphere’ (1935), the true representation of himself and his apartment is within a reflective, clear ball held aloft by a disassociated hand.
Both artists were masters of depicting ordinary subjects with extraordinary context. No wonder their popularity has only grown over the years.