escher evolution of art
Still Life with Spherical Mirror, 1934

Evolution of art has been a subject of argument for generations of art historians. But E.H. Gombrich warns us about the historians penchant for generalisation for the sake of creating plausible narrative stories that confirm our hope that we’re standing on the peak of evolution.
In 1950 a discussion took place between the illustrator Oey Tjeng Sit and the graphic artist M. C. Escher. The argument was whether there are any essential differences between the viewpoint of illustrators and graphic artists. Instead of talking about his viewpoint as a graphic artist, he found it more interesting to philosophize about the lack of evolution in plastic arts. He notes that such artists always have to start out on their own, carrying over nothing essential from their predecessors.  The discussion took the form of an exchange of letters, published in the Newsletter of the Dutch Circle of Graphic Artists and Illustrators.

Escher, whilst sitting in a small meadow on the banks of the Vézère, describes to Oey his recent visit to the cave Lascaux in the village of Les Eyzies of south-western France. The cave is estimated to be of at least 70,000 years old, rediscovered only in 1940, has by far the most beautiful and well-preserved pre-historic painting in the world.

Escher describes the sight through the attentive eyes of an artist:

One sees there, in splendidly rich and clear shades of black, auburn, and ochre, a great number of animals. These are horses, cows, bulls, deer, bison, wild goats, a rhinoceros, a bear, and a wolf, close together, often painted one over another, on various scales (from bulls of more than five meters in length down to little horses of less than twenty centimetres scratched into the limestone). They have made an overpowering, breathtaking impression on me… It is an image that is alert, lively, and that speaks to us immediately, as if it had been painted yesterday.

Meditating on the drawings that cover the inner wall of the cave and admiring the ability of the ancient artist to communicate via language of form as fluently as any modern artist, Escher wonders whether the Darwinian theory of evolution applies to the mind and will of the person who’s engaged in depicting the world in the language of forms.

What does it mean when we call him “primitive”? Is he really inferior to us? Can we do things “better” than he? Does it clearly appear that we are “farther along” than he was? Have the Great Ones whom we honour, the mighty sculptors from any of the historic periods, depicted life more sharply, with more intensity than he has?

He did not have paper and pencil for sketching, no modern well-lighted drawing table on which to make preliminary sketches. It must have been tiring to bend over his work while painting an animal five meters long clear across the vault of his cave. While painting such an animal under the poor lighting conditions at his disposal, he perhaps could not see the heads as he was working on the hindquarters. But his will and his capacity to produce pictorial images were at the least just as strong as ours. Perhaps even stronger because he was in direct contact with nature, which we usually approach by way of a cultural and educational system that, if not barring the way, certainly obstructs it for us.

In his opinion, the tools and techniques that artists use evolved since those pre-historic times, but the artist’s mind, the senses he perceives the world with and, the language of image making he uses to convey it has changed little. This is a viewpoint that characterizes Escher the individualist. He felt that as an “artist” he had no one to turn to but himself and assumed that the same applied to other artists as well.

The plastic arts have not experienced an evolution. In everything else that man makes and in much of what he thinks, he adds his contribution to what has been done by previous generations. In everything he strives towards perfection. The development of his spirit and his increasing mental grasp are staggering in all aspects – except in the plastic arts. It seems to me that here each individual has to start from scratch each time, without ever taking anything of really primary importance from a predecessor.

He did not have paper and pencil for sketching, no modern well-lighted drawing table on which to make preliminary sketches. It must have been tiring to bend over his work while painting an animal five meters long clear across the vault of his cave. While painting such an animal under the poor lighting conditions at his disposal, he perhaps could not see the heads as he was working on the hindquarters. But his will and his capacity to produce pictorial images were at the least just as strong as ours. Perhaps even stronger because he was in direct contact with nature, which we usually approach by way of a cultural and educational system that, if not barring the way, certainly obstructs it for us.

Collection of lectures, letters and personal memoirs by the ingenious graphic artist M.C Escher. Eloquently written, it offers a great insight into the creative process and his most famous artworks.

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