Jos de Mey

Painting after M.C. Escher

This title has a dual significance: painting "after" Escher and painting "from" (or as) Escher.

It was in 1956 when I first got to know the works of M.C. Escher. I took part in an exhibition of modern interior design in the Museum For Applied Art in Ghent. Apart from my furniture designs I had also made an abstract wall painting.

In that same museum there was about that time also an exhibition of the works of Escher. His works made an enormous impression on me. Especially the images "Wrinkling", "Quagmire" and "Dewdrop" I would never forget.

Later, in 1958, I was at the world exhibition in Brussels with some of my works of art based on the Fibonacci series, the Golden Edge and the "Modulor" of Le Corbusier.

In 1959 Professor M. Verzele gave me a copy of the article written by father and son Penrose on the impossible figures from the "British Journal of Psychology".

In 1963 I discovered through my colleague Mr. de Vogelaere the "Tree of Pythagoras" as it was drawn by A. Bosman.

In the early sixties there was a huge study done together with my students of the Royal Academy on polyhedrons and other geometric three-dimensional structures.

Around 1966 complicated circular compositions and studies of symmetrical divisions within the square and the cube were realised. In the meantime I bought my first book on Escher in 1962.

It was about "The General Mineralogy and Crystallography" of professor Dr. B.G. Escher, brother of M.C. Escher.

In 1968 I visited the huge exhibition on M.C. Escher in the Municipial Museum of The Hague.

Accidentally or not, but in that same year I decided to finish my private practice (of interior design, furniture and colour advice) in order to be able to dedicate myself, beside my teaching activities at the Higher Institute of Architecture, entirely to a career as an artist.

Until then I had only made drafts and realised projects that had to be always very accurate and feasible.

As counterpart to all that exactitude I was determined to make things that could only exist as work of art. What I was going to show in my designs and paintings should be something unfeasible, i.e. non-existing. So I came inevitably up to the Impossible Figures.

The first paintings from the period between 1968 and 1976 were colourful abstract compositions based on a.o. Thiery's Figures and the dual line drawings of Josef Albers. Those paintings showed generally "things" that hung in an unexisting space. They were representations of unexisting objects that neither had an upper or bottom side nor any left or right side. If the paintings were not signed you could easily hang them upside down or even slantwise.

Later on the structures or constructions were put on a kind of base or on an indefinite, neutral surface.

And around 1976 my works became more and more figurative emphasising the "Trompe L'CEil"-effects, i.e. cheating the eye, using an exact reproduction of the material and thoroughly studied light and shadow effects. I paid enormous attention to the surrounding landscape with a detailed reproduction of the air, the grass, the trees, the small houses, the water, etc.

Painting impossible figures as such, increases their assumed reality. For me it was also a possibility to distinguish myself from the anonimous international abstractness. And so I could experience the pleasure of being able to represent something that couldn't be and do it in such a convincing way that one is likely to think that it really could exist.

It indeed occurs that less experienced visitors claim that my paintings are not painted but photographed.This is something that with representations of impossible figures is of course rather "contradictory".

And now I would like to talk about some aspects of my works a lot of questions are asked about.

  1. Which part do the persons, mostly taken from other painters, have in the paintings?
    They are a kind of walkers-on that serve in the first place to provide scale to the constructions that are thetheme, and so the main point of the painting. A construction will seem larger if I make the persons smaller. And conversely, when I make the persons proportionately larger, the construction will seem smaller. The persons or objects also prevent that certain parts of the constructions would be situated on another place. They can also enforce or disturb the perspective effects.
  2. Why is there often an owl represented?
    You could consider the owl as an alter ego of the painter. That bird is in our language (i.e. Dutch) the symbol of theoretical knowledge and at the same time the image of the stupid guy or he who pretends being stupid . A typical example is the old Flemish villainous heroe Tijl Uilenspiegel who pulls your leg in his tales but in a friendly way because he tells apparently true untruths.
  3. Why those landscapes with small houses, pollard willows, poplars, grass, fences, castles, cows, etc.?
    I paint universally recognisable impossible figures. They could be painted by anyone in the world, from New York through Tokio to Rome. I want to stress my own nationality or regionality with those background landscapes. Those surrounding landscapes tell: Jos de Mey is born Flemish, in this flat country, under this sky, in that green he lives and works.
  4. Why is there no usual signature on the paintings?
    My signature, or just my name, is on the small letters, signs, pieces of rock or things like that. Those "visiting-cards" usually refer to that part of the work that is really mine and not to figures or objects that refer to other, art-historical or contemporary painters. The title, the date, the adress and a code-number are always put on the backside of the painting. The code-number refers to my books of drafts in which all the projects realised by me are represented on scale and in colour.
  5. Why those long titles?
    I give the painting a title only when it is totally finished. These titles sometimes give a description that explains the work but very often they make the work even more mysterious. It's a pity most of the titles can't be translated because they are puns that can only be understood by Dutch-speaking people.
  6. What's the name of this artistic trend?
    I give my works the name of "Constructive Illusionism" or "Illusionist Constructivism". Probably this is a very difficult name and hard to pronounce. However, I couldn't think of anything better. "Constructivism" because of the constructed subjects and "Illusionism" because of the impossibility of the constructions and the deceptively realistic way of painting.

Apart from those six frequent questions I would like to explain some other interpretations and methods.

The shiny, impersonal, painfully exact painting technique.
I try to paint timeless and objectively so that the photographic realism gives the unexisting architectural compositions all the same a "probable image". The deceptiveness of the impossible figures becomes more mysterious and hence more attractive.

The incidence of light
Few will see it but I almost always use the same incidence of light. There is a light source (the sun?) on 45° left above and 45° left behind the observer.This gives a certain constant to my works that are otherwise very different in theme and situation.

Finally I would like to point out that I've always only wanted to satisfy the "Eye" and the "Mind". I'm totally convinced of the fact that the eye doesn't mean anything without the mind. Art that only satisfies the mind is interesting. Art that only satisfies the eye is superficial. That's why I always look for art that is both interesting and estetically satisfying. ...

Zomergem, 29th January 1998 
Jos de Mey 
Lecture on "Escher '98" 
Centennial Congres Rome 24 - 26 June 1998 

P.S. Looking back I would say that there are a lot of similarities between M.C Escher and myself. Certainly as far as our interests are concerned. I'm less scientifically gifted and educated than M.C. Escher and also in the perception of nature there are some differences.
I am, just as Escher, no city guy but I can't share, however, the love he has for the open sea. I love the sea on the beach and apart from that I prefer rivers and mountains, things Escher is less interested in.
In the meantime I hope sincerely that, with all respect for the predecessor-inventor Escher, my works mean a step forward in the painting expression of impossible figures and constructions.