MC Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch artist, who made mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints. Many traditional art critics find his work ‘too intellectual’. I love his work because it’s endlessly interesting, and I sometimes think that critics have a somewhat narrow view of what can define art. He makes use of mathematical constructs, geometrical shapes and tessellation (defined as the covering of a plane with one or more geometric shapes, having no overlaps or gaps.) He made extensive study of Moorish architecture and its extensive use of tessellation, and began to use it construct his own works. His use of multiple gravitational perspectives and impossible geometries are enough to make your head spin, but I find you can just gaze and gaze at his work and still find more to discover.

“Relativity” depicts the interior of a building with a number of flights of stairs. Only the stairs exist on multiple different gravitational levels. Someone will ascend a staircase, with someone else climbing the same staircase but on the underside of the initial one. Other figures and stairs will be perpendicular to this and so on. It is an idea that has been used in science fiction and fantasy film on occasion. Anyone who has seen the film “Labyrinth” will recognize this idea.

“Reptiles” similarly depicts a surreal, mind-bending scene, where abstract lizard shapes crawl out of the surface they are drawn on, becoming realistic and ‘three-dimensional’. They crawl across a pile of books and other items, before returning to the picture and their original abstraction. The abstract part of the picture depicts the tessellation of which Escher was so fond, and then morphs (along with the lizards) into something very weird and trippy. His artistry is so good, he can draw beautiful diagrams and extremely realistic pictures as well. He uses both of those skills here to strange and wonderful effect.

Maurits Cornelis Escher, “Reptiles,” 1943. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“Day and Night” is a point of view picture where birds morph into field, black morphs into white, day morphs into night, and so on. Again, he uses tessellation at the top of the picture to create the illusion of birds flying each way, and gradually changing to landscape as your eye moves down the page. As with all his pictures the eye never knows where to land, as the picture is constantly seen in a different light depending on what point you are looking at. Abstraction becomes reality as your eye moves over the picture. It’s like looking at several different pictures in one. It’s why I can look at the images for such a long time – they never get old.

“Print Gallery” is a mind-bending image, where a man standing in a gallery looks at a picture of a seaport, in which is depicted the gallery in which he is standing. The perspective curves and distorts, folding back to the gallery where the man stands. Essentially the picture is recursive, and could potentially repeat infinitely. It almost makes you dizzy to look at, but that’s what makes it so interesting. His pictures are so thought-provoking, in that you have to concentrate just to make some kind of sense of them.

“Stairs” revisits the staircase. In a sense this picture is less complex than “Relativity”, but not when you look at it closely. In it figures are depicted, marching endlessly up and down the same flight of stairs that go around a four-sided building. But they keep on marching – there is no end to the stairs, they just go around and around, something that of course is not possible. Anything is possible in Escher’s impossible drawings.

Escher was not mathematically trained, and yet espoused complex mathematical principles in his pictures. This is why mathematicians and other scientists embraced his work more than the art world. In my opinion, however, MC Escher was a genius, and remains one of my favourite artists.

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