Escher and the Art of Lithography

M. C. Escher devoted his life to the art of wood block printing and became one of its greastest practitioners, but many of his most famous works are lithographs, including Drawing HandsBelvedereRelativity, Bond of Union, and Hand with Reflecting Sphere.

M. C. Escher, Bond of Union, 1956, lithograph, 10 x 13 3/8 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection, 1974, © 2015 The M. C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.com

David Steel, curator of The Worlds of M. C. Escher, says the artist got serious about making lithographs as early as 1929, producing a total of 76 in his career (29 of which are in the NCMA’s exhibition). Steel thinks Escher may have been first attracted to lithography while working on a scratch drawing of Alfedena, Italy (also on view in the show). “The scratch drawing process,” says Steel, “results in an image that is close to lithography in terms of the subtle gradations on light and color it achieves, but it is very labor intensive compared to lithography.”

In this video print master Brian Garner, of Supergraphic in Durham, N.C., discusses the collaboration of artist and lithographer, and the autographic feel of a lithograph compared to works made by other printing techniques:https://player.vimeo.com/video/139597793?app_id=122963

According to Salvatore Iaquinta–surgeon, printmaker, and author of “Escher by the Block,” an essay in the NCMA’s exhibition catalogue–Escher used only a small number of stones to create his lithographs: “Once he finished an edition of a work, he often wiped the stone clean and sanded down one millimeter of the stone’s surface” to create a fresh plate for his next print. “Sanding eliminated any possibility of ever printing that image again,” protecting exclusive runs: Still Life with Spherical Mirror was printed in an edition of only ten.

After drawing the final image in reverse onto the block of limestone with an oil-based black pencil–”creating tones and depth of shading not achievable in wood block printing,” says Iaquinta–Escher hired a lithographic printer to treat the stone and pull prints from it, as Garner demonstrates here:https://player.vimeo.com/video/139592087?app_id=122963

Steel emphasizes that we can’t fully appreciate Escher’s technical craft and virtuosity until we see his works in the flesh–face to face, as opposed to looking at reproductions in a book.

“When you spend time studying his early lithographs, like Street in ScannoSelf-PortraitAtrani, Coast of Amalfi; and, above all, Castrovalva, it’s rather mind blowing to think that after just a few months of working in the lithographic technique, Escher was able to create such masterpieces.”

Steel thinks that the large size of Street in Scanno and Castrovalva, whose impressiveness in part depends on their scale, would have represented a significant challenge in terms of finding and carving a wood block of that size. 

“In order to achieve the subtle tones in his later woodcut of Coast of Amalfi,” says Steel, “Escher had to carve six separate blocks and print them six times for each print. It’s a beautiful wood block print–one of my favorites–but when you compare it to an earlier lithograph of the same location–a much simpler technique–you see just how much harder he had to work to achieve similar tones and textures using the woodcut process.”

In addition to several of Escher’s carved wood blocks, canceled after his death in accordance with his directive, The Worlds of M. C. Escher features the artist’s lithographic stone for his 1955 print Convex and Concave, which hangs nearby. The inclusion of a number of the artist’s preliminary drawings and printing blocks makes the show one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of the artist’s oeuvre ever presented.

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