How Did a Brazilian M.C. Escher Exhibition Become the World's Most Popular Art Show?

“The Magical World of Escher” at CCBB Rio de Janeiro draws a crowd
(Courtesy CCBB)

Last month, to the surprise of many art world observers, the Art Newspaper announced that Rio’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) had hosted three of the 10 most-visited exhibitions of 2011. These included shows of Japanese artist Mariko Mori and American new media pioneer Laurie Anderson. But number one was “The Magical World of Escher,” which led the pack by welcoming a staggering average of close to 10,000 visitors every day it was open — almost 1,500 more daily guests than the Metropolitan Museum's blockbuster "Alexander McQueen" show in New York.

But how did M.C. Escher become the world's most popular artist? And how did Brazil surge to the top of the listings? To find some answers to this question, ARTINFO Brazil asked some of the country’s leading curators, art critics, and artists what they thought of the numbers. The answers included, among other things, the spectacular appeal of Escher mind-bending illusions; the popular appeal of a show that was devoted to as much to groovy interactive installations (see our slide show) as art; the surging of social media among technology savvy Brazilians, which made the show go viral; and the unique position of the free-admission Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil as a hub of Rio's cultural life — a magic that other Brazilian institutions might have trouble emulating.

Here is what our experts said:

"The exhibition attracted a new audience for being interactive, fun, enchanting, and affordable. People who visited sent messages and photos to friends and family, which created great word-of-mouth. Social networks were instrumental in publicizing the exhibition. The CCBB has been a big innovator in this respect, and has gained well-deserved prominence as a successful developer of new audiences. Other Brazilian cultural institutions also stand to benefit from this because this new public is more curious and will attend other high-quality exhibitions.”

Pieter Tjabbes, curator and professor at the University of Sao Paulo, former Ministry of Culture employee, and former international director of the Sao Paulo Biennial

"This show made me appreciate a word to which I hadn’t paid much attention before: interactivity. The exhibition's success comes from daring to mix concepts from art and entertainment. The visitor will remember much more of an exhibition in which he or she could play with the works, or enter into simulations that explain the concept of the artwork. The mixture worked and we learned much about it.”

— Marcos Mantoan, director of Rio’s CCBB at the time of “The Magical World of Escher,” now the director of Sao Paulo’s CCBB

"At a time when there is a proliferation of digital illusions in images on the web, and 3D cinema is increasingly popular in Brazil, an artist who began to use traditional media such as drawing and printmaking to create similar effects in the 1920s was able to capture the attention of the media and the imagination of the public."

— Douglas de Freitas, curator of the Chapel of Morumbi in Sao Paulo, a space dedicated to site-specific projects

"I like Escher’s works because those buildings are as disconcerting and almost impossible to unravel as the architecture of our world. These amazing and skillfully constructed spaces were the main attraction of the exhibition.”

— Sergio Sister, Brazilian painter

“My interest in visiting the exhibition was to see the drawings in person. Those I saw in books as a child drew my attention, especially the more architectural spaces and landscapes. I wanted to see the complexity of his lines and his way of thinking. The strongest and most interesting works were in the showrooms. They were small pictures with fine lines,  really great works , but that might not work well within the many interactive installations. I think that public participation should take place if requested by the artist and the work, not as a decision by curators or producers to get attention.”

— Marcia de Moraes, Brazilian artist 

"Is Escher really a key name in the history of art. Sometimes I think what’s interesting about his work is similar to the interest generated by the work of Arcimboldo, for example, which has more to do with visual 'tricks' than a connection with Surrealism, for example. Maybe a show more focused on artwork and with fewer many interactive installations could generate more discussions. The unfortunate thing is to give so much attention to interactive installations without a discussion of the artist's work. Were visitors more interested in visual arts, or were they just there to be entertained?”

 Mario Gioia, art critic and independent curator

"The CCBB is one of the only Brazilian institutions with a captive audience that comes to see all its programming, but obviously it has more interest in interactive exhibitions that are covered extensively by the media. In Rio, this public does not attend the other museums and cultural centers, and comes from all regions of the city. Many say that they are not interested art, so there is no guarantee that the CCBB is forming museum visitors. But I am an optimist; I think this record is not only good news, but also a message to other institutions that they need to rethink the ways they relate to their visitors."

— Daniela Name, art critic, independent curator, advisor for Special Projects to the Department of Museums of the Secretariat of Culture of the state of Rio de Janeiro

To see images from "The Magical World of Escher" at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, click on the slide show.