M. C. Escher's Day and Night, a 1935 print.

Update: The M. C. Escher print of Day and Night sold for $40,000.

What you see: M. C. Escher’s Day and Night, a 1935 print. Swann Galleries estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

Who was M.C. Escher? Maurits Cornelis Escher was a Dutch graphic artist and printmaker who gained fame for his complex, precise, mind-boggling, and delightful images. He captured the imaginations of sages such as Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstader, author of the classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. In 1922, he took trips to Italy and Spain that forever shaped his visions. In particular, he fell under the spell of the tessellations that decorate Alhambra, the fourteenth-century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. Surprisingly, Escher took no formal mathematical training. He died in 1972 at the age of 73.

Escher made Day and Night in 1935, at the end of an 11-year period when he produced many of his most iconic images. How does Day and Night build on what came before? “When Escher was traveling in Italy, he did tour-de-force topographical works of landscapes. This is more abstracted. It’s not a straightforward view,” says Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings. “In terms of his printmaking techniques and procedures, it’s classical. He’s academically trained. The linear aspects of his woodcuts are very clear.”

How does Escher achieve the exceptionally fine and subtle gradations that we see in Day and Night? “You have to imagine very, very fine cutting of the wood block by hand,” Weyman says. “He was a technical virtuoso.”

Did he work alone? “Yes,” he says. “He often signed and inscribed his prints with the word ‘eigendruk,’ which means ‘printed by myself.’ He’s saying he’s the printer. He oversaw everything at a time when it was not uncommon for an artist to work with a printer, who would handle the technical aspects.”

We should also stress that Escher did all this without the aid of a computer, which would not have been available to him anyway, and he had to carve the image into the wood block backwards to create the print that we see. “Yes. Everything is printed in reverse,” Weyman says. “You can see not just his artistry but his technical virtuosity in the medium.”

This Day and Night has no edition number. Do we know how many were made? And how often does it appear at auction? Unfortunately, we don’t know how many Day and Night prints Escher made, though other prints of his are editioned. This is the only version that he produced. Weyman says it has appeared at auction 40 times in the last 30 years, but some of those might represent the same print being consigned again. The record for an Escher at auction belongs to a 1940 print of Metamorphosis II that sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2008 for more than $246,000. The record for a print of Day and Night was set at Christie’s London in March 2013 when one sold for almost $57,000.

What else makes Day and Night special? “It has all the aspects of a great Escher that you would want,” Weyman says. “The yin and yang qualities, the way the landscape morphs into an aerial view, and the patches of landscape morph into birds, the parallel landscapes [under] day and night, the technical virtuosity, the imagination at play in this image–it’s all Escher.”

How to bid: M.C. Escher’s Day and Night is lot 618 in Swann Galleries’ 19th & 20th Century Prints and Drawings sale on September 19.

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Posted in Art