The Strange Worlds of M C Escher

M C Escher at Work

I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even though that is how it sometimes appears.  M C Escher

Maurits Cornelius Escher was born in June 1898, the youngest son of a prosperous Dutch government engineer. After a year in technical college, he attended the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. He was diverted from a career in architecture by his teacher and mentor Jessurun Mesquita, who encouraged him to develop his drawing and printmaking skills.

After visits to Spain and Italy, he was impressed by the dramatic landscapes, particularly mountainous and desert regions with olive trees and cacti. Escher found Holland relatively uninspiring and returned to Spain again, where he visited Granada and saw the palace of the Alhambra, with its elaborate decorative architecture. Escher travelled widely in Southern Europe, working assiduously on drawings and prints. He married in 1924 and settled in Rome. By this time he had achieved a measure of success with woodcut illustrations for a booklet Easter Flowers, and his print St Francis Preaching to the Birds sold well. In addition he had a one-man exhibition in Sienna and another in Holland.

Eight Heads, woodcut stamped print, 1922

The print, Eight Heads, was made when Escher was still at art school, and is an example of a side-grained woodcut, where the white areas are cut away, leaving the raised areas to impress the ink. This method was used exclusively by Escher in his early work, and is distinct from wood engraving (Intaglio) where the ink lies in fine grooves and the raised surface is wiped clean before printing. This early work already includes Escher’s hallmark: the division of the picture plane into repeating areas, and the ambiguity between figure and ground which challenges the normal perceptive habits of eye and brain.

It was not until 1929 that I made my first lithograph, and then in 1931 I tried my hand for the first time at wood-engraving, that is to say engraving with burins on an end-grain block.  M C Escher, The Graphic Work Published by Benedikt-Taschen Verlag.

Castrovalva, lithograph 1930

Escher was a perfectionist who strove to realise his ‘visions’ through meticulous study and practice. The seemingly conventional landscape, entitled Castrovalva, exerts a hypnotic power and demonstrates Escher’s complete mastery of tone and composition. The terrifying strangeness of this threatening landscape qualifies it as surrealistic and expressive of a deep intuition about the nature of being revealed through art.

I myself passed many years in this state of self-delusion. But then came a moment when it seemed as though scales fell from my eyes. I discovered that technical mastery was no longer my sole aim.

Reptiles, lithograph 1943

The lithograph above, entitled Reptiles, illustrates many of Escher’s abiding interests. On the drawing board is a tessellation (tiling) with drawings of three shades of alligators locked into a hexagonal grid. The realistically drawn objects in the nature morte establish the usual three dimensional illusion of naturalistic drawing. The tiny alligator on the dodecahedron, snorting fire, and the two lizards entering and leaving the tessellated plane provide clues that the picture is imaginative but fundamentally about the relationship between two and three dimensional space.

Although not a trained mathematician, Escher took a great interest in geometry and what he called ‘the logic of space’. He wrote an essay in 1957 on tessellation, which he had first studied in the decorative work of Islamic artists in Spain.

In mathematical quarters, the regular division of the plane has been considered theoretically . . . Does this mean that it is an exclusively mathematical question? In my opinion, it does not. [Mathematicians] have opened the gate leading to an extensive domain, but they have not entered this domain themselves. By their very nature they are more interested in the way in which the gate is opened than in the garden lying behind it.  The Mathematical Art of M C Escher.

Escher, Sketch of Alhambra Tiles, 1934

Escher went beyond the mere topological constraints devised by mathematicians, with their 17 possible ‘wallpaper groups’ by transforming the basic cell shape and the emblems embedded in them across the picture plane. This process is shown in the eight panels below.

Metamorphose, woodcuts 1939-40, 1967-68

Artists have been concerned with perspective and geometry since the Renaissance, none more so than Albrecht Durer whose output of graphic art was prodigious. The depth of his interest in mathematics can be seen from the magic square on the wall, the sphere, the compass held by the despondent figure and the irregular solid with its pentagonal sides. This emblematic engraving is crammed with esoteric meaning, befitting that more superstitious age, but heralds the intrusion of science into a world emerging from darkness.

Albrecht Durer, Melancholia, copper engraving 1514

A work of similarly disturbing power is Escher’s Still life with Reflecting Globe, shown below. A sinister, metallic bird man stands on a newspaper, which rests on a slim book floating in a dark void. The diminutive artist sits at his desk, trapped within a spherical bottle, which reflects a wide angle view of his study. This suggests a transformation of the alchemical aphorism: “as above, so below” into “as within so without”. We can see from the reflection in the bottle that the bird man is just an object on Escher’s desk, but appears to us as a menacing projection of the artist’s self into a terrifying, noumenal void.

Still life with reflecting globe, lithograph, 1934

Such metaphysical works invite contemplation, not only on the nature of space, but on our predicament as solipsistic beings trapped within our individual subjective worlds, which cannot be taken at face value.

By the 1950s, Escher had received international recognition, featuring in both Time and Life Magazine articles, and was knighted by the King of the Netherlands in 1955. During the 1960s his popularity increased further as he was embraced by the Hippie generation with its love of psychedelic art. This success was capped off by the publication of The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher, which included 76 prints and a commentary by the artist.

One of the most notable features of Escher’s later work is the puzzle picture, showing impossible architectural constructions based on the capacity of visual perception to translate from a two dimensional image to a false three dimensional interpretation. The simplest example of this is the Penrose triangle, which seemingly attributes the properties of the Mobius strip to the rectangular faces of a solid triangle. In Escher’s Waterfall, the system of channels and the waterwheel constitute a perpetual motion machine, which the mind knows is impossible, since water cannot run back uphill, but the eye insists it is possible according to the drawing. In even more complex works the artist uses several different perspectival vanishing points to turn parts of the picture back-to front, upside down and even inside out. The Mobius strip, also represented in Escher’s work, is not such an illusion, since it is a possible three dimensional construction.

Waterfall, lithograph 1961

Escher was capable of evoking mystical thought and the usual aesthetic responses to fine art without resorting to such optical illusions. Prints such as Three Worlds and Puddle, shown below, are fine examples of this skill.

Puddle, three block woodcut, 1954

Escher describes this work as follows:

The cloudless evening sky is reflected in a puddle which a recent shower has left in a woodland path. The tracks of two motor cars, two bicycles and two pedestrians are impressed in the foggy ground.

He neglects to mention the moon, which gives this image such a poetic, oriental feeling, like a visual Haiku. Such works must be ranked among the highest achievements of this genre, comparable to the pastorals of Samuel Palmer.

There are a great many facets to Escher’s conceptual art, including the representation of infinity. In the image below, each circle of fishes recedes without limit to the finite circumference of the sphere in an infinitely diminishing series. It has been claimed by some scientists that Escher was one of the first people to make such intuitive representations of Einstein’s bounded but infinite model of the cosmos.

Circle Limit III, five woodblock print, 1959

After a lifetime of dedication to his unique craft, Maurits Escher achieved both artistic success and much admiration from sections of the scientific and mathematical community. He died in 1972 at the age of 73. His legacy is perpetuated in the Escher Museum, which is located in the Haarlem mansion where he was born.

A succinct description of Escher’s work can be seen in this short BBC video.


TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes.