The work of Maurits Cornelis Escher- better known as M.C. Escher – might simply be summarised by the phrase ‘ways of seeing’. His perplexing and entertaining images have the mind wondering as to how what it is comprehending can quite be possible – and yet there is it, right in front of your eyes. “A woman once range me up and said ‘Mr. Escher, I am absolutely crazy about your work. In your print ‘Reptiles’, you have given such a striking illustration of reincarnation’,” Escher once recounted. “I replied, ‘Madame, if that is the way you see it, so be it’.” Ambiguity was the Dutch artist’s stock in trade – in speech as in his art, it would seem.
Indeed, while 3-D images have become commonplace thanks to computers, Escher was playing with the realm of depth long before. ‘Magic Mirror’, one of his more famous lithographs dates back to 1946. That name, in fact, lends its title to a new book from Taschen on his work, written by Bruno Ernst, a mathematician who visited Escher every week for a year, talking through the artist’s oeuvre. Quite whether anyone could get to the bottom of it is another matter: these images’ complexity is not merely aesthetic, but scientific, and clearly psychological. Are the stairs ascending or descending, or somehow both at the same time? Just what is that animal, if it’s an animal at all?
Escher was certainly a prolific artist, given the intense planning required of his works. In his lifetime he made some 448 lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings, as well as some 2000 drawings and sketches. Some were realistic. His best-known work, however, are explorations of the impossible, of ‘the regular divisions of the plane’, of reflection and symmetry, tessellation and geometry, infinity, perspective and perception. The graphic artist, who died in 1972, was busy commercially as well. He illustrated books and postage stamps, designed tapestries and murals. His hobby was carving beech wood spheres – again, something that required absolute precision.
It’s small wonder that Escher, in fact, spent a lifetime interacting with leading mathematicians – Roger Renrose, George Polya, Harold Coxeter – despite proclaiming that he had no mathematical ability himself. It’s even less surprising that his work was especially popular with mathematicians, with his images appearing not just in galleries, but in technical papers and ‘Scientific American’. Perhaps it was the art world’s inability to easily label him that meant Escher’s talent was largely overlooked in his lifetime, even in the Netherlands. He was 70 before the first retrospective of his work. Now his fans and influence alike are global.