July 6, 2010

M.C. Escher's Wood Block Prints

        M.C. Escher is one of the world’s most famous artists, especially if you judge by the number of posters sold to college students. Most of the really popular images are lithographs – you know the ones, with the cool optical illusions and surreal transformations. However, a lot of Escher’s prints are woodcuts and wood engravings, some with multiple blocks, and all with the same level of precision and complexity for which he’s so justly famous. A wood engraving, by the way, is just another kind of relief print, except that it’s usually done on the hard end grain of the wood and worked with engraving tools for extremely fine, sharp lines. Wood engravings, therefore, are not affected by the direction of the wood’s grain like the prints that are generally called woodcuts or wood block prints.
        Here are some of Escher’s block prints that I find especially noteworthy. (If you can find a book with good reproductions, it’s worth looking at them. The incredible precision of Escher’s work just can’t be appreciated in these poor small scans on a computer screen.)
        St. Peter, Rome is a wood engraving done in 1935. No tricks, just insanely beautiful carving. Look at the angled sides of the pier in the center bottom of the piece. Notice how the slightest adjustment of width in the carved lines and the spaces between the carved lines creates the shading that defines the architecture. Dang, I want to carve like that! And if when you look at an engraving you can’t always tell whether you’re looking at a relief wood engraving or an intaglio copper engraving, here’s the clue. Notice that the grey of the floor has white lines criss-crossing over black. That tells you that the ink was printed by the uncarved part of the block. In an intaglio engraving you’ll see black lines criss-crossing white, because the ink prints from the incised lines.
        Escher made the wood engraving Dragon in 1952. He said of it, “However much this dragon tries to be spatial, he remains completely flat… But this dragon is an obstinate beast, and in spite of his two dimensions he persists in assuming that he has three…” One of the things I find amazing about this piece is that the dragon really has no outline. This is especially noticeable along the bottom of his tail and stomach and the back of his leg. Escher has managed to make the creature’s outlines perfectly clear without ever actually carving them.
        Development I is a woodcut from 1937. As a piece I don’t much like it, but as a sample of carving I find it utterly mind-boggling. Escher has made about ten different shades in a complete gradient from black to white, perfectly controlled, and all using only black and white, ink or no ink. (I know, unfortunately there are grayish areas in this scan. But that’s my fault, not Escher’s.)
        Here’s another neat woodcut, from 1928. It’s called Tower of Babel, and once again demonstrates Escher’s mastery of the wood block. The level of detail just blows away anything I’ve ever accomplished. (It’s about 25 inches tall, bigger than any block I’ve ever attempted, too.)
        For a few more of the many examples of Escher’s wood blocks, try googling “Dream,” “Sky and Water I,” “Stars,” “Butterflies,” “Double Planetoid” (a wood engraving printed from four blocks), or “Rippled Surface,” (a linoleum cut printed from two blocks.)
        Finally I want to include Palm, from 1933. It’s a wood engraving made from two blocks. You can see most clearly how the grey block differs from the black block by looking at the downfolded leaf at the bottom left corner. I just love this one.

[Pictures: St. Peter, Rome, wood engraving by M.C. Escher, 1935;
Dragon, wood engraving by M.C. Escher, 1952;
Development I, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1937;
Tower of Babel, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1928;
Palm, wood engraving by M.C. Escher, 1933.
        I scanned these pieces from M.C. Escher: The Graphic Work, Introduced and explained by the artist, Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1992. (The reproductions in the book are copyright 1989.) My quotation from Escher also comes from this book, p 15. Many thanks to the publishers of this beautiful book!]

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