Escher exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria reveals Dutch artist through eyes of Japanese design house nendo


Posted

December 06, 2018 14:16:56

When Oki Sato was invited to design the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer exhibition, he had no idea he was about to embark on one of the great collaborations of his career, but also one of his key friendships — with an artist who had been in his grave almost half a century.

“I sort of feel like I became best friends with Escher, even though I never met him,” says Sato, head of Japanese design house nendo.

The result, Escher x nendo: Between Two Worlds, allows audiences to get to know the late Dutch graphic artist more intimately, too.

Speaking at the media preview, Sato told ABC’s The Hub on Art: “When you start really doing a lot of research, you notice that the world [of his work] is much bigger, it’s much deeper.”

“That’s the kind of experience that I want to deliver in this exhibition: that you notice that you thought you knew Escher, but you really didn’t.”

Escher x nendo: Between Two Worlds features more than 150 preparatory sketches, drawings, woodcuts, mezzotints and lithographs on loan from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which holds the world’s largest Escher collection.

Combined, it reveals a meticulous craftsman who mastered a toolkit of techniques and genres painstakingly over decades, before settling on the tessellations and optical illusions that made him famous.

It also reveals a poetic soul, captivated by nature and the landscapes of Italy, where he lived between 1924 and 1935.

Getting to know Maurits Cornelis Escher

Like most of us, Sato discovered MC Escher in the classroom, at a young age.

Like most of us, he felt that he knew the artist. After all, few artists have entered popular culture more successfully than Escher, thanks largely to his work being enthusiastically taken up by the counterculture (hippies, rockers) in the 1960s.

“But I noticed that I did not know much about Escher, actually,” says Sato.

In order to get to know Escher, the designer tried to look beyond each artwork in order to understand what the artist was thinking when he was making it.

Behind the tessellations, for example, Sato perceived a person of immense patience and almost “robotic” focus.

“He has a certain formula — almost like a computer program … and then he throws in plugins and then he just waits there and sees what happens.”

“There’s not much flexibility … He might start working on a piece and then he wants to do something different — but it doesn’t work, because he slightly changes the fish and then you don’t see the bird anymore.”

Preparatory sketches, many of which are exhibited in Escher x nendo: Between Two Worlds, also gave Sato an invaluable insight into Escher’s mind and creative process.

“You really understand what he was trying to do, and that became a great inspiration,” says the designer.

Two of a kind…or odd couple?

There are clear and obvious similarities between Escher’s work and nendo’s: the use of optical illusions, the sense of playfulness.

But Sato was delighted to find parallels at a deeper level: “The way we would think about things, the approach to new ideas and things like that,” he says.

For example, Sato studied architecture before design, and says, “I really feel this architectural process when I see [Escher’s] work — I think it’s really extreme.”

Both did badly at school, the designer notes, laughing.

In process, however, the two are very different. Escher followed a rule from the start to finish, but Sato says, “I want to be as flexible as much as possible during the process — which is something the fashion designer Issey Miyake taught me.”

“What I learned from him [Issey Miyake] is that … you can change anything you want, you can stop wherever you want, and the goal is not a single goal — you can end up somewhere else [from where you started].”

Collaborating with Escher

“Usually in a collaboration like this it’s much easier when the two are very different, because it creates an interesting chemical reaction,” says Sato.

“In that situation, we would try to find what we have in common, and then that becomes the link between the artist and designer.”

With Escher, however, Sato and his team felt that nendo and the artist had so many things in common, they actually had to look for differentiating factors.

“I tried to find things that are not nendo-ish within Escher,” says the designer.

Ultimately they decided to home in on one of the distinctive qualities of nendo’s brand — their interest in creating 3D objects that feel 2D — that works in oppositions to Escher’s trademark of creating 2D works that feel 3D.

The result is a series of playful environments designed by nendo, in which Escher’s works are displayed.

In the largest room of the exhibition, for example, a grid of black-and-white houses with roofs in various states of ‘openness’ and ‘closedness’ functions as a simple maze in which visitors will discover tabletop light-boxes displaying works by Escher.

From afar, viewers will notice that from one end of the grid to the other, a row of four houses becomes a row of five — a subtle transformation that you might miss at first, mimicking the way we discover the warped perspective in one of Escher’s ostensibly realistic scenes.

The Japan connection

Pairing a contemporary Japanese designer with a Dutch graphic artist is not as strange as it might seem at first.

The Netherlands and Japan have special relationship historically: from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the Dutch were given exclusive trade access to Japan.

This connection was echoed within in Escher’s own family: his father, a hydro mechanical engineer, worked in Japan between 1873 and 1878.

Escher Snr. brought back his own photos of the country, as well as Japanese prints and wooden puzzles.

Benno Tempel, director of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, says: “I cannot keep the image out of my head: a young MC Escher sitting on the lap of his dad, going through the beautiful photographs of this strange country, playing with these puzzles, looking at the prints.

“That must have had a lasting impression on him.”

Escher x nendo: Between Two Worlds is at NGV International, Melbourne, until April 7.

Topics:

arts-and-entertainment,

contemporary-art,

visual-art,

australia,

melbourne-3000,

netherlands,

japan,

vic



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