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The M.C. Escher Company
M.C. Escher's "Drawing Hands."

PROVO — If you’ve ever puzzled over an image of stairs that lead nowhere or a pair of hands drawing themselves, there’s a good chance you’ve been exposed to the creative genius of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.

A new exhibit that opened Nov. 17 at the BYU Museum of Art showcases Escher’s work, known for its complicated and mathematical geometric forms.

“His work can be very intellectually engaging, but it’s also very playful and very fun,” said curator Kenneth Hartvigsen. “There’s a lot of fantasy built into the images, and so I think all of those aspects of it make it something that our university audience will really love.”

Enthusiasts throughout the world have described Escher’s works as mind-boggling, elusive, visually challenging, mind-bending, eye-tricking, impossible, puzzling and amazing, according to museum educator Lynda Palma.

The M.C. Escher Company
M.C. Escher's "Relativity."

“We’re so fortunate to be able to show such a phenomenal collection of Escher works at the MOA, where our visitors will have the opportunity to marvel, firsthand, at Escher’s supreme craftsmanship and graphic genius,” Palma said.

Maddie Blonquist, Hartvigsen’s research assistant on the project, said one of the best things about Escher is his universal appeal. Escher gathered inspiration for his artworks from a wide variety of subjects, including music, Renaissance artists, mathematics, crystallography, physics, optical perception, psychology and the Italian landscape, according to Blonquist.

“Because his graphic work is so interdisciplinary, I think that visitors from a variety of backgrounds will be able to find a print, concept or process that resonates with them,” Blonquist said. “There really is something here for everyone.”

The exhibit’s title, “Other Worlds,” originates from one of Escher’s images in the show with the same name. However, Hartvigsen felt this title also symbolized Escher’s nature as an artist with many facets to both his personality and work.

“It’s going to give them a chance to understand a little bit better who he was, where he came from and what motivated his drive to create these fantastic images,” Hartvigsen said.

The show will feature all of Escher’s “greatest hits,” as well as introduce visitors to some of his earlier works and lesser-known pieces, Hartvigsen said. The exhibit aims to teach visitors about new sides to Escher and his work. It especially highlights Escher’s love of music, which he often said was the main inspiration for his work.

The M.C. Escher Company
M.C. Escher's "La Cathedrale Engloutie."

“When he was working on a difficult print and couldn’t quite figure out how to move forward, … he would listen to music as a way to gain inspiration and then return to the work,” Hartvigsen said.

The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach in particular had a pervasive influence on Escher, according to Palma.

“Many of Escher’s works are visual representations of the unwinding, interweaving polyphonic lines of Bach’s mathematically sophisticated pieces,” Palma said.

The exhibit will incorporate this music element to Escher’s work through a Bösendorfer grand piano equipped with Disklavier technology. This will enable the piano to play back note-for-note performances of pieces that either inspired Escher or were inspired by his work, recorded by BYU School of Music students.

Hartvigsen said he found the piano to be a better way of integrating music into the exhibit than other methods like using headphones, which he felt would remove visitors too much from the gallery.

“I really wanted the music to fill the space and to be like another work of art within the space,” Hartvigsen said. “Having a grand piano in the space gives it a sculptural quality, which elevates the performance of the music in the exhibition.”

Escher, who lived from 1898-1972, did not like to call himself an artist and claimed he didn’t know much about math, according to Hartvigsen. As a result, his images didn’t get much recognition from the art world until the 1960s, when his prints became prevalent in popular culture and began appearing on things like album covers, book jackets, posters and T-shirts.

“I think people were attracted to the fantasy and the illusion of his images during the counterculture, the difficult times of the 1960s in the western world,” Hartvigsen said. “They saw his works as a way to escape — as these really wonderful, complicated, beautiful worlds that they could remove themselves into.”

Escher’s images have since inspired video games, apps and anime, and have been referenced by Harry Potter, “Inception,” “The Simpsons” and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Palma said.

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Blonquist said although Escher’s prints can be appreciated on the surface level for their entertainment value, it is more important to appreciate them for Escher’s efforts to show the beauty of abstraction.

The M.C. Escher Company
M.C. Escher's "Self-Portrait."

“What he so often tries to do in his graphic work is to restore order to an otherwise chaotic world,” Blonquist said. “For me, M.C. Escher's art is so much more than an intellectual exercise.”

If you go …

What: “M.C. Escher: Other Worlds”

Where:The BYU Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo

When: Open Monday and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Nov. 17, 2017 through May 19, 2018

Web: moa.byu.edu