Dutch Printmaker, Draftsman, and Illustrator
Laren, North Holland, Netherlands
Summary of M.C. Escher
Escher broke down the boundaries between art and science by combining complicated mathematics with precise draftsmanship and an eye for the unusual. His work is a combination of intricate realism and fantasy. He is most famous for his 'impossible constructions', images which utilize mathematical shapes, architecture, and perspective to create a visual enigma, but he also produced subtle and original work drawing inspiration from the Italian landscape. Most of Escher's art was produced as prints - lithographs or woodcuts and its appearance and subject matter was quite unique at a time when abstract art was the norm.
- Despite not having a formal mathematical training, Escher had an intuitive and nuanced understanding of the discipline. He used geometry to create many of his images and incorporated mathematical forms into others. Additionally, some of his prints provide visual metaphors for abstract concepts particularly that of infinity, the depiction of which Escher became interested in later in his career. During his lifetime Escher kept abreast of current ideas in the field and corresponded with several eminent mathematicians on the subjects of interconnecting and impossible shapes incorporating their ideas directly into his work.
- Escher highlighted the contradiction of representing three dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane and this is particularly clear in images such as Drawing Hands (1948) in which two hands (seemingly simultaneously) engage in the paradoxical act of drawing each other into existence.
- As an artist Escher worked alone and was not affiliated to any particular group even to Surrealism to which his images are closest in spirit. His work had an impact on the development of Op Art, but he rejected any association with the movement stating that "there are young people who constantly come to tell me: you, too, are making Op Art. I haven't the slightest idea what that is, Op Art. I've been doing this work for thirty years now".
- Escher worked with three main printing techniques woodcuts, lithography and mezzotints. The process to create his detailed and precise images was time-consuming and required a great deal of skill and manual dexterity. Over the course of his 60 year career he produced a total of 448 prints, an average of only seven or eight a year.
Progression of Art
This image is part of the body of work that Escher produced in Italy from 1923 to 1935. In these he explored depictions of the landscapes, towns, and buildings that he encountered on his extensive travels around the country. Like many of his Italian works, this is a detailed and accurate portrayal but despite the image's realism it maintains an air of fantasy. This drama is heightened by the overall darkness of the image and the strong contrast between these tones and the paler highlights.
Castrovalva also demonstrates Escher's early interest in spatial relationships and his attempts to capture three-dimensionality on paper. The work encompasses a wide field of vision from high to low and near to far and this gives the piece multiple points of focus from the carefully rendered plants in the foreground to the sheer sides of the buildings to the distant mountains silhouetted at the end of the valley. Whilst Castrovalva is approached with realism Escher also created images in this period which were more fantastical such as The Bridge (1930) which incorporates realistic architectural elements into an imaginary framework.
Lithograph - National Gallery of Canada
Hand with Reflecting Sphere
One of the last paintings from his Italian period, this lithograph depicts Escher sitting in his studio in Rome, reflected in a mirrored sphere which is held in one of his hands. Light from the window at the far end of the room highlights the furniture behind Escher and casts a shadow across his face creating depth within the portrait. Some of his other works can be seen framed on the walls of the studio.
The work is representative of his increasing fascination with visual illusions, mirrored reflections, and perceptual self-references. The plain background of the work focuses attention onto the reflection but also causes the viewer to question the accuracy of the depiction, the hand and sphere appear to exist in a void in which only the reflection is real. This enigma is further enhanced by the fact that Escher gazes directly out of the picture instead of representing himself drawing the image. The fact that his face appears directly in the center of the sphere indicates his mastery over the illusion.
This self-portrait forms part of a much older practice of artists painting themselves reflected in convex surfaces with key examples including Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) by Parmigianino and Caravaggio's Medusa (1597). In his work Escher is both acknowledging this tradition through his detailed study of his own reflection and subverting it through the depiction of the mechanics of its creation.
Lithograph - Rosenwald Collection
Day and Night
This was Escher's most popular print, of which he made over 650 copies during his lifetime. It depicts a flock of birds flying in opposite directions over a rural landscape. The town is mirrored precisely on both sides of the picture but presented in daylight on the left and nighttime on the right. The squares of the fields metamorphize into the birds which then tesselate with each other across the top of the image utilizing the spaces between animals to enable the transition. This complex composition showcases the merging of earth and sky, night and day and different living creatures into one another. The regular chequerboard nature of the fields can be seen as a reference to 17th century Dutch art in which dramatic perspective and black and white tiled floors were prominent features
The birds form part of a wider canon of Escher's work in which animals are either tessellated across the whole image (Escher called this 'regular division of the plane') or one animal becomes another through the use of interlocking designs and negative space. Examples of the former include Lizard (1942) and Regular Division of the Plane (1938); the latter, Sky and Water I (1938). These works were originally motivated by Escher's second visit to the Alhambra, a building which he considered to be "the richest source of inspiration that I have ever tapped". He initially created work utilizing the abstract geometrical elements he saw there, but gradually replaced these with stylized figures of animals, as seen here.
The work can be viewed from two perspectives and the eye naturally moves between the two. The bird's eye view, looking down on the landscape below, contrasts with the direct perspective where the birds are viewed straight on. The two perspectives are linked by the diagonal lines on the fields and on the birds' wings and these give a sense of movement upwards and in the direction of travel of the birds, removing the distinction between foreground and background.
Woodcut - University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery
Portraying an interior space consisting of multiple staircases leading in many directions and opening up to different, light-filled exterior spaces, Relativity is part of Escher's 'impossible constructions' series. Of these works Escher stated, "I can't keep from fooling around with irrefutable certainties" and to 'make fun of gravity'.
The piece can be viewed from numerous perspectives and from each of these the localized architectural environment makes sense. By allowing the orientation of the viewer to shift depending on which viewpoint is followed, the scenes are open to a continuous cycle of interpretation. The confusing nature of the composition is further enhanced by the strong contrasts of light and dark and the inclusion of faceless mannequin-like figures who continue to carry out normal tasks in the abnormal setting around them. These figures may be interpreted, from a philosophical standpoint, as co-inhabiting different planes of existence and the piece calls into questions the nature of reality.
Lithograph - Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection
Ascending and Descending
Ascending and Descending is one of Escher's most recognizable pieces and another example from his 'impossible constructions' series. The work draws inspiration from projective and non-Euclidean geometries and paradoxical perspectives to create a physical architectural impossibility that explores the very logic of space itself. As in Relativity, stairs are the focus and the never-ending staircase at the top of the image was conceived by Roger Penrose. Penrose was a mathematician who invented the Penrose triangle, an impossible object, after seeing Escher's work. Along with his father, Lionel Penrose, they designed a staircase based on the triangle which simultaneously looped up and down. This was sent to Escher who created Ascending and Descending as a response.
The piece can be viewed as a comment on existence, the stairs which lead nowhere becoming a metaphor for the futility of life. This is further emphasized by two figures who are not on the eternal staircase, one looks up, with detachment, from a side balcony whilst the other sits unhappily on a lower flight of stairs. Escher commented on these figures calling them "recalcitrant individuals [who] refuse, for the time being, to take part in the exercise of treading the stairs. They have no use for it at all, but no doubt, sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their non-conformity".
The clothing of the figures further enhances the mystery of the work, giving it a cult-like feel with the hoods echoing those of monks. The short-belted tunics are Medieval in style and can be seen as a reference to the work of Hieronymus Bosch which Escher consciously alluded to in other pieces such as Belvedere (1958).
Snakes was created three years before Escher's death when he was already suffering from poor health, and it is the last print he made. The work has a rotational symmetry of order three, meaning that the same image has been replicated three times around the circle to build the finished piece. It was also created from three different printing blocks, one for each color which were over-printed to generate the subtle shading and multi-colored appearance. In the image snakes writhe in and around a circle composed of interlocking rings that seem to both extend outwards and simultaneously shrink infinitely inwards. The rings diminish again, as they reach the edge of the circle, while the snakes face outwards, suggesting that something exists beyond the central image. The design is incredibly intricate and required an immense amount of draftsmanship and skill to complete the very precise nature of the woodcut.
Escher increasingly interrogated the idea of infinity in his work and other examples include Smaller and Smaller (1956) and his Circle Limit series. These express a growing concern with the dimensionality of space, in Escher's words, an exploration of "the language of matter, space and the universe". This interest in the infinite may be viewed in terms of his increasingly apparent mortality and this is enhanced by the inclusion of the snakes in the work, which in mythology can swallow their tail to regenerate from their own essence.
Woodcut - Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt Collection
Biography of M.C. Escher
Maurits Cornelis Escher, known as 'Mauk' by his family was the fifth and youngest child of Sarah and George Escher. He had a comfortable middle-class childhood and his memories from this period were happy ones. In 1903, the family relocated to the city of Arnheim where Escher attended school, an experience that he disliked intensely. Despite being a time which Escher would later refer to as a 'hell', he found some comfort in drawing classes where he began to sketch and learn linocuts. Although he was not an exceptional student his devotion to art was apparent and by 1917, along with his close friend Bas Kist, he was already printing some of his works in the artist Gert Stegeman's studio.
Education and Early Training
Escher enrolled at the Haarlem School for Architecture and Decorative Arts to train as an architect but later that year switched to the decorative arts, studying under the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. In 1921, Escher visited Italy with his parents, becoming deeply interested in the Southern Italian landscape and spending most of his time making detailed drawings of cactus, trees, and seascapes. Upon his return, dissatisfied with his life in the Netherlands, he decided to travel again, this time to Spain, visiting Madrid, Toledo and Granada where he became fascinated with the Alhambra, a Moorish palace which had a profound influence on many of his later works. It was during these travels that Escher found inspiration for his early art, exploring ideas through sketching on location that he would later develop into prints in his studio. His work at this period included monochrome landscapes, natural forms, and intricate architectural studies. In these images he began to play with ideas of light and space, contrasting areas of black and white and presenting a view from multiple perspectives.
In 1923 Escher had his first exhibition, held in Siena where he was living at the time. Here he met Jetta Umiker, a Swiss woman who was there on holiday with her family. They married the following year and settled in Rome where they had three sons George, Arthur, and Jan. The stable family environment that they created in the years that followed led to a very productive period in Escher's life. Escher was a quiet and dedicated young man with a fondness for listening to Bach and whilst he was occasionally stuffy in his interactions he is also remembered as witty and open-minded with a passion for the world around him. By 1929, his work had grown in popularity and demand and he had held a number of exhibitions in Holland and Switzerland. During this time Escher began to experiment with ideas of metamorphosis presenting an object turning into something completely different and he would return to these ideas in his later work.
The year 1935 marked a turning point in Escher's career. The rise of Fascism caused the artist and his family to move to Chateau-d'Oex in Switzerland, and although Escher still travelled to Italy, themes of Mediterranean life became less prevalent in his work. Escher began to explore what he described as 'mental imagery' and this new direction was encouraged by a second visit to the Alhambra. Based on theoretical ideas, such as perception, geometry, and mathematics, the artist began to create work using repeating arrangements of intersecting forms which he found in Islamic art. He then utilized these ideas to produce stylized patterns drawing on natural imagery including tessellating lizards, birds, and fish. Escher called this series of images Regular Division of the Plane.
Escher was unhappy in Switzerland and in 1937 they moved to Uccle, a suburb of Brussels in Belgium. This was the same year that Escher produced Still Life and Street (1937) his first impossible reality image. World War II forced the Escher family to move again and the artist returned to the Netherlands in 1941. They settled in Baarn where Escher extended the use of impossible spaces and optical illusions within his art, producing his most famous work in this period.
Escher grew in popularity throughout the 1950s and was featured in both Time and Life magazines. This created a demand for his work in the United States which he struggled to meet, raising his prices repeatedly in an attempt to slow down sales. He also gained prominence closer to home and in 1955 he was awarded the Knighthood of the Order of Orange-Nassau. Although finding mainstream popularity, Escher remained sober and meticulous in his work and was reluctant to become a celebrity. He turned down Mick Jagger who wanted to use one of his pictures for an album cover, telling the star's assistant, "Please tell Mr Jagger I am not Maurits to him". He also refused Stanley Kubrick who, in 1965, asked for his collaboration on a film, probably, 2001: A Space Odyssey .
Much of Escher's later art focused on mathematical shapes such as Mobius Strip II (Red Ants) (1963) and Knot (1966) but his continued fascination with symmetry can be seen in his last major piece, Snakes (1969), he also introduced color into a handful of his works. In 1970 he moved to a retirement community in Laren in the Netherlands and it was here that he died two years later on March 27 at the age of 73.
The Legacy of M.C. Escher
Escher's exploration of the themes of infinity, eternity, material illusion, and the impossible created a unique vision in a time when the art world was dominated by abstraction. Although Escher was never taken that seriously by the art establishment, his work had an enduring popularity with the general public and he was adopted as a pioneer of psychedelic art by the hippy counterculture movement of the 1960s.
Escher's work is still widely reproduced and his imagery serves as a source of inspiration in various fields of popular culture. Despite his refusal of Mick Jagger's request, his images have been featured on numerous album covers including The Scaffold's L The P (1969) and Mott the Hoople's first album, Mott the Hoople (1969). More recently his work has been referenced by the film and computer games industry. Labyrinth (1986) directly recreates the physical space depicted in Relativity (1953), whilst Inception (2010) alludes to Escher in the dream sequence where the streets of Paris bend and warp. It has been suggested that the design for the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy of films was inspired by the architecture featured in Procession in a Crypt (1927).
Despite his wider popularity, Escher has few direct artistic successors and his main impact can be seen in encouraging artists to bridge the gap between traditional artistic techniques and the disciplines of maths and science. Recent examples of artists working at this intersection include Jen Stark, Janet Saad-Cook, Marcelo von Schwartz, and Fabian Oefner. During his lifetime Escher exchanged ideas with mathematicians including Roger Penrose and H.S.M Coxeter who used his images to generate new theories and to provide visual explanations for their concepts. Doris Schattschneider has identified 11 strands of mathematics indirectly or directly inspired by Escher and these predominantly relate to symmetry and tessellation.