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M.C. Escher Photo

M.C. Escher

Dutch Printmaker, Draftsman, and Illustrator

Born: June 17, 1898 - Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Died: March 27, 1972 - Laren, North Holland, Netherlands
Movements and Styles:
Op Art
,
Surrealism
,
Expressionism
"I am always wandering around in enigmas."
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M.C. Escher Signature
"Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible."
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M.C. Escher Signature
"We adore chaos because we love to produce order."
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"He who wonders discovers that this is in itself a wonder."
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"I could find an entire second life with working on my prints."
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"At moments of great enthusiasm it seems to me no one in the world has ever made something this beautiful and important."
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M.C. Escher Signature
"The things I want to express are so beautiful and pure."
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M.C. Escher Signature
"I don't grow up. In me is the small child of my early days."
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"Order is repetition of units. Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm."
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"The hand is the miraculously refined tool, the intermediary between spirit and matter."
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"If you want to express something impossible, you must keep to certain rules. The element of mystery to which you want to draw attention should be surrounded and veiled by a quite obvious, readily recognizable commonness."
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"It's pleasing to realize that quite a few people enjoy this sort of playfulness and that they are not afraid to look at the relative nature of rock-hard reality."
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"So let us then try to climb the mountain, not by stepping on what is below us, but to pull us up at what is above us, for my part at the stars; amen."
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"Filling two-dimensional planes has become a real mania to which I have become addicted and from which I sometimes find it hard to tear myself away."
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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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1930

Castrovalva

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

1935

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

1937

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

1953

Relativity

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

1960

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).

Lithograph

1969

Snakes

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


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
M.C. Escher
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Roland Penrose
    Roland Penrose
  • No image available
    Lionel Penrose
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    Albert Flocon
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    H.S.M. Coxeter
Artists
  • No image available
    Christopher Nolan
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    Jim Henson
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    Sarah Kabot
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Albert Flocon
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    Andre Barre
  • No image available
    H.S.M. Coxeter
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"M.C. Escher Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
Available from:
First published on 30 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]