Wednesday, October 5, 2011

M. C. Escher

Maurits Cornelius Escher is one of the world’s most famous graphic artists. He is most famous for his impossible structures, but he also created other beautiful works of art such as realistic work, tapestries, and murals. He uses interlocking shapes, transforming creatures, and impossible structures to challenge the viewer’s perception of reality. He once stated, “The ideas that are basic to them often bear witness to my amazement and wonder at the laws of nature which operate in the world around us.” This amazement with nature’s laws inspired his works.

M. C. Escher was born in Leeuwarden on June 17, 1898. He received his first instruction in drawing at a secondary school in Arnhem by F.W. van der Haagen who helped Escher develop his graphic aptitude. He used a variety of tools over his lifetime and created things such as woodcuts, lithographs, and drawing.. In 1916 Escher completed his first graphic work. Between 1919 and 1922, he studied graphic art at the School of Architecture and Ornamental Design in Haarlem after an aborted attempt to become an architect, which could explain in early interest in buildings and landscapes. In February of 1924, he had his first exhibition in Holland and later settled in Rome. During his ten year stay in Italy he made many study tours where he would travel places such as Abruzzia, the Amalfi Coast, Calabria, Sicily, Corsica, and Spain. The Moorish mosaics, especially in Spain, always intrigued Escher. It was these mosaics that really inspired him to create his famous tessellations. He left Italy in 1934, spent two years in Switzerland where he completed 62 of the total of 137 regular division drawings he would make in his lifetime. Then he spent five years in Brussels before finally settling in Baarn, Holland where he died on March 27, 1972 at the age of 73.

Over the years he created a number of landscapes, portraits and graphic designs, but one of the things that he is most famous for are his tessellations. A tessellation is a closed shape or polygon that repeats on all sides without leaving any gaps. His work in tessellations actually has a very strong link to mathematics, which is one of the things that I found very interesting about his work especially because I am a math major. Many, if not most, of his works of art that involve topology, optical illusions, hyperbolic tessellations, and other advanced mathematical topics were the direct result of collaboration with various mathematicians. E. Maor would even go so far as to say “It is Escher’s ability to portray abstract mathematical ideas in terms of concrete, recognizable objects that is perhaps his greatest genius.”

One of the mathematicians he met with was Bruno Ernst who wanted to understand how the art of Escher worked. Escher’s work can be divided into two periods: pre-1937 where he spent his time on landscapes and post-1937 where he had a mathematical tendency. He was able to divide Escher’s work into several themes such as the illusion of space, regular division of the plane (such as a tessellation), perspective, the impossible, and the infinite.

The above picture of lizards is an example of one of Escher’s tessellations (excluding the yellow lines.) This is a regular division of the plane, which is very similar to a jigsaw puzzle with identical pieces. Creating these tessellations involves translation, reflection, and rotation in the plane in order to create these patterns. Crystallography actually uses a similar mathematical system, and Escher studied some crystallography before coming up with his own system of creating these divisions of the plane. In fact the mathematical definition of the division of the plant is “A plane, which should be considered limitless on all sides, can be filled with or divided into similar geometric figures that border each other on all sides without leaving any ‘empty spaces’.”

The yellow box demonstrates how this picture is divided up. Each part of the picture is represented in that box. The box connects a point at which the heads of two white lizards meet, a point at which four front legs meet, a point at which the heads of two black lizards meet, and a point at which four hind legs meet. Rotating and moving this box will create the rest of the picture. The drawing below the lizards is called Reptiles, which was drawn in 1943, and incorporates the idea of tessellations and also has the reptiles leaving the page and then reentering.

This is another drawing of Escher’s called Convex and Concave, which was drawn in 1955. At first glance this seems to be a pretty symmetrical structure because the left half is approximately mirrored to the right half. As one transitions from left to right, at the center everything turns inside out. What was the floor is now a ceiling, etc. Many objects’ relations to their environments become so strange that one can almost feel dizzy. Having something hang from a floor just doesn’t make sense in the way that we view space. Part of what really attracts people to Escher’s work is that he suggests things, which do not really exist and sometimes cannot even exist. This is one of those examples of impossibility. This drawing is just physically impossible in the world that we live in, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

This is a drawing by Escher called Drawing Hands, which was drawn in 1948. In this drawing the conflict between plane and space is expressed in a striking manner. The sleeves of the hands are clearly supposed be drawings. However, the hands that are connected to them look as if they are drawing the sleeve of the other hand. It is such a great illusion. There is no way one can know what is supposed to be real and what isn’t. I think that’s one of the really interesting things about all of Escher’s work. In contrast with the irrationality of surrealism, everything about his work is rational. Every illusion that he creates is based on a totally reasoned construction. Escher was always fascinated by the fact that the brain insists on seeing a picture or a drawing in two dimensions as three dimensional. When one looks at this picture, it appears that the hands are 3D, but in reality they aren’t. This was Escher toying with the idea that every spatial picture is based on an illusion because the picture itself is actually 2D, but our eyes insist on seeing the 3D of it.

Before I wrote this blog, I had heard of M. C. Escher before because I may have seen one if his paradoxical drawings, but I never realized how interesting his work actually was until I actually picked up a book of some of his works. I also had no idea that his work was so mathematical, so reading about that was really interesting to me. Personally, I have always liked realistic and rational works of art. I was never into surrealism or more abstract art. Before I saw a book on Escher, I was flipping through other books of realistic artists, but honestly to me a lot of them looked too similar and nothing really stood out. Escher was the only that took a “realistic” work of art and really made it his own by adding this creativity and impossibility to it. What he draws is interesting, but it is really how he draws that makes it so incredible.

~ Carmen Lopez


Bool, F. H., et al. M.C. Escher His Life and Complete Graphic Work. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1982. Print.

Hawthorne Books Inc. The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher. New York: Meredith Press, 1960. Print.

Schattschneider, Doris. M.C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry. China: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 2003. Print.

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