Whenever and wherever an Escher exhibition is held it does good business. The public flock to see his mind-bending designs and impossible views; he is favoured by groups as disparate as rock musicians and hippies and by cosmologists and mathematicians. Yet his work has been mostly disregarded by the mainstream art world which has seen him as a mere graphic artist, kitsch and repetitive, lacking in emotion and ultimately not worthy of inclusion within the pantheon of traditional art history. Yet that view is beginning to change and was further reinforced by an extensive new show produced by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and which is now showing at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The gallery’s director, Ian Dejardin thinks part of the problem is Escher’s unique style. “Escher is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole. No one else works like him. I’m unaware of anyone else who works in even a similar style to him. He was a one-man act throughout his life. He never saw himself as part of a movement.” In addition, Escher never aligned himself with any particular art movement. As the exhibition’s co-curator Patrick Elliott explains, “I thought I’d find all sorts of links between Escher and surrealism. He was born five months earlier than Magritte, and I thought I’d find all kinds of references. There’s only one reference saying he admired Magritte but they seem never to have met or corresponded. He seems to have steered clear of all these art groups, so if you open any standard book on European art you won’t find Escher there, or in museums because he’s not a painter, so a real one-off but I think the greatest one-off in 20th century art.”
Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in 1898 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, the youngest son of a civil engineer. When he was five, the family moved to Arnhem where Escher spent most of his childhood and youth. Micky Piller, co-curator of the Dulwich show and who, for thirteen years was Head Curator of the Escher collection at the Het Paleis in The Hague, has written that “he was extremely unhappy at school: he was left-handed, which was regarded as an abnormality at the time, and very intelligent, which wasn’t recognised. Escher had to repeat the second year and failed his school-leaving exam. Throughout his life he described his school days as a period of sheer misery, describing it even years later as ‘the hell that was Arnhem.’ ”
Escher then enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem in 1919. His father hoped he would eventually become an architect but within a week his gift for graphic design had been spotted by Samuel Jesserun de Mesquita, the graphic arts teacher, who persuaded his parents to let him switch courses from architecture to graphic design. After a difficult start he had at last found his metier.
His early works give hints of what was to come. For In Mesquita’s Classroom (1920/21) he employed one of his later favoured techniques, screening, as Micky Piller explains: “This early work is intriguing because instead of creating a central perspective, Escher worked with layers or ‘screens’, placing, as it were, the figures and objects one behind the other. The horizontal dividing line on the wall does not function as a horizon, but simply emphasises the wall in front of which everything and everyone else is placed. In Escher’s family home there were examples of Japanese art and craft that his father had brought back from Japan, where he worked in the 1870s. The central perspective is unknown in Japanese art. Instead, artists use ‘screens’ to suggest depth.”
Escher had first visited Italy in 1921 with his parents. He had produced a standard, eye-level woodcut view of the town of San Gimignano on his second visit with friends in 1922 but when he went back again to the city the following year his whole perspective has literally changed. Now Escher employs a view from below bringing the town into closer focus. It was the first time he had employed his ‘worm’s-eye’ aspect which was to become so prominent in his later works.
It was during his 1923 visit to Italy that Escher met his future wife, the Swiss Jetta Umiker whom he married the following year. Her father was a wealthy industrialist and thoughtfully gave them a wedding gift of a simurgh, a mythical birds, probably Persian in origin, which symbolised fertility. This too was to feature in Escher’s work.
Escher had also become fascinated at this time with tessellations, patterns of identical shapes which interlock with each other in a seemingly never-ending process. His first attempt at this was Eight Heads (1922). The artist visited Spain’s Alhambra in Grenada six months later and immediately realised the similarity with his tessellation experiment and the Moorish, tiled wall designs. He became in intrigued by what he termed the ‘regular division of the plane’ in which the outer contour of one object coincides exactly with the contour of the adjacent object, and how, when repeated, the designs create visual puzzles.
Unsurprisingly, at this time Escher, still only in his mid-twenties, is feeling his way through his art. Yet for Patrick Elliott his path is already clear. “All the seeds of his later work are here: the amazing technique for wood cuts and lithographs; fabulous attention to detail; pattern-making which is something he had success with later on in his career; mirror reflections and tipped-up perspective.”
And nowhere is this early experimentation more obvious than in Babel of 1928. Here Escher employs a bird’s-eye view of the tower, yet another perspective essay which he was to employ so fruitfully in his later works. At this stage he is still experimenting with individual perspectival approaches. Later he would use combinations of them within the same drawing.
The Italian landscape captivated Escher and he moved to Italy permanently with Jetta in 1925. Although they lived in Rome he would travel to the most remote parts of the country in search of inspiring views. “So he goes to Italy and goes mountain climbing,” explains Micky Piller. “Don’t forget he comes from a very flat country so climbing mountains in Italy was a new and exciting experience for him and he wanted to show the viewer exactly what he had experienced himself, not with a photo or via a computer but directly in a drawing or woodcut.”
The lithograph Castrovalva (1930) displays Escher’s continuing wonderment at the Italian countryside. This is a mountainous region less than 100 kilometres from Rome but Escher imbues it with a wild, mysterious atmosphere, almost other-worldly. Three villages are depicted here with Castrovalva in the foreground, Cocullo in the distance and Anversa at the foot of the mountain and the eye follows a visual trail from left to right then back to the starting point again, a technique which Escher developed more fully in later years. Micky Piller explains exactly what Escher is doing here: “He exaggerates the scale, making the mountainside steeper and higher, while the unusually large plants placed in the foreground make objects in the distance seem even further away. He has omitted a number of ancient houses to make the village perched on the mountain ridge even more eye-catching. In the print, Anversa clings to the mountainside, drawing the viewer directly into Escher’s perception of the landscape.”
These works all show Escher still finding his way artistically yet with a great mastery of technique. At this stage he is creating topographical works, scenes taken from the landscape or directly representational, yet seen through his own unique eye. However, he is clearly becoming interested in the surreal, if not Surrealism itself, and Still Life with Mirror (1934) is an early work displaying the typical Escherian traits of bending reality and playing with perception. A bedroom mirror reflects not the room in which it is placed but the street outside. The viewer is at first lulled into acceptance of unreality by the – correct – reflection of the toothbrush, but then, says Micky Piller, “he’s sneakily and cleverly taking the micky out of the viewer because he combines two spaces which are actually impossible. These images are frequently found in dentists’ and doctors’ waiting rooms because they want to get their patients and students engaged in something else and thinking about another reality.”
Her co-curator Patrick Elliott continues: “The mirror’s telling a lie, it’s one hundred per cent Magritte or Magritte is one hundred per cent Escher. The mirror should be showing the room interior, a wall or window. But just look at the technique! I think Escher is the only 20th century artist who, in a lithograph, could show you the difference in quality between a hairbrush and a toothbrush. The depth of his craftsmanship is unbelievable. And he has the most extraordinary imagination. There aren’t many artists who combine the two.”
A later work of 1937, Still Life and Street, shows Escher playing with visual eye/brain adjustment, as Micky Piller explains. “[This] woodcut marks the beginning of the transition from the use of ‘screens’ to create depth in a composition, to optical illusion. We are all familiar with the sensation associated with suddenly looking up from close reading: for a second, distance and nearby seem to merge. Escher shows us the pack of cards in equally clear and close detail as the washing hanging far away in the bend of the street.
“On looking carefully, we see that the large book on the left appears to form part of the wall of the house behind it. This is even clearer in the study: there is a logic to the bulge in the book’s spine and in the right-hand side of the house where a trader has set out her wares. The left-hand side of the large book coincides with the edge of the print, and because the other books on this side are smaller, we have the feeling that they are leaning on the large book. This suggests a depth that leads us to perceive it as more than just a row of books: it is also the distance between us and the wall of the house. The same happens on the other side, where the penultimate book creates a visual link with the row of houses. What is more, Escher smoothes the transition from nearby to far away without a middle ground by giving the table surface and the street the same diagonal structure. We neither see nor feel the transition.”
Escher and his family left Italy in 1935 disturbed by the rise of Fascism and because his two sons had contracted TB. It seemed logical then to settle in Jetta’s mountainous, airy homeland of Switzerland but Escher found no inspiration there, producing only one print in the following two years. He needed lush and variegated landscape, not the uniform snow layers of the Alps. The family moved to Belgium and thence to Baarn, south-east of Amsterdam, in 1941 and Escher was energised once more.
He had already returned to the Alhambra in 1936. “When he was there in 1922 it interested him,” says Patrick Elliott, and “when he returned he made lots of drawings in that summer, marvelling at the technical brilliance of the tiling, how their designs interlocked and their intricate geometric patterning.”
In a catalogue essay on Escher’s tessellations, Micky Piller explains how such complex works struck a chord with Escher’s half-brother Berend (Beer) who just happened to be a geologist and crystallographer at Leiden University. “Beer sent him a list of academic publications, including two articles which were to provide the inspiration for a large number of studies. Most influential was the 1924 article by the Hungarian crystallographer George (György) Pólya defining the seventeen plane symmetry groups and showing how crystals divide. The second article was based on research done by the German crystallographer Friedrich Haag…Both offered Escher unexpected ways of making more complex tessellations.
“The tiles in Escher’s prints are always recognisable figures. That is the greatest difference between them and the examples from Moorish art and the patterns in crystallography. Escher’s exercises may begin in an abstract manner, but the coloured studies and the prints that are primarily in various tones of grey feature identifiable human figures, insects, reptiles, birds, angels and other creatures. Over the course of time, Escher played with these tessellations and varied them.”
Escher continued his visually trickery in Day and Night (1938) where the brain can only distinctly make out either the white or the black birds at any one time, as they fly over the polder landscape of the Netherlands towards the sunrise or darkness. The viewer has to make a determined mental adjustment to perceive the separate flocks with the additional idea arising that they could well meet again at the other end of the flight cycle. This theme of infinite possibility in space and its time equivalent eternity is a constant in Escher’s later work.
Day and Night was by far Escher’s most popular print, all of which he produced himself in his studio. Escher made more than 650 copies of the woodcut meaning that he printed it 1,300 times with the help of a small egg spoon for applying the ink. But he wrote to a friend at the time saying “I don’t like it any more…and I can’t start doing something new because of it.” The demand especially came from America and even when Escher raised his prices buyers clamoured for his work, so much so that he compared his printing press to a money-making machine.
Metamorphosis II (1939-40) runs over more than twelve feet in length in a “single, enormous tessellation” as Micky Piller says. Its end is its beginning as Escher takes us on an ironic journey as the word ‘Metamorphose’ itself transforms into black and white squares, lizards, pentagons, insects, fish, birds, even the Italian town of Atrani which Escher knew well and a chess board before returning, via more black and white squares, to its original state, but this time in reverse. Escher was here striving for a visual representation of infinity which he grasped more completely later in his career when he wrote:
“Anyone who plunges into infinity, in both time and space, further and further without stopping, needs fixed points, mileposts, for otherwise his movement is indistinguishable from standing still. There must be stars past which he shoots, beacons from which he can measure the distance he has traversed.”
Reptiles of 1943 displays a never-ending cycle of lizards crawling from one of Escher’s earlier works – Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/Lizards no. 56 (1942) – across various object’s in Escher’s study and then back into his original drawing again. Not only is this a self-contained representation of infinity through perpetual motion and the endless timeframe of eternity, but it highlights another of Escher’s preoccupations, the paradoxical nature of pictures which are flat yet depict three-dimensional objects. Talking of a later work, Balcony of 1945, Escher said: “[In] our three-dimensional space […] the two-dimensional is every bit as fictitious as the four-dimensional. […] curiously enough, we still go on, as we have done since time immemorial, producing illusions of space on just such plane surfaces as those. […] Surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim ‘This is a house’.”
Nowhere is this effect better illustrated than in Escher’s lithograph Drawing Hands (1943). Escher depicts a pair of hands simultaneously drawing each other, the drawing drawing itself in fact. As the gallery label states: “The hands appear to break free from the confines of the pinned, two-dimensional sheet of drawing paper to become three-dimensional forms capable of independent movement.”
Up and Down (1947) is the first of Escher’s works to feature a staircase motif. “Here you’ve got the boy looking up at the mother and then this wonderful architecture which then flips,” explains Patrick Elliott, “the ceiling flips into the floor and then here you’re looking up at the boy looking up at the mother and you’ve got the palm tree from different angles. But it’s even cleverer than that because if you get two copies of it the floor forms a perfect whole with the ceiling.”
Staircases were to feature in a number of Escher’s later works such as House of Stairs (1951) and Relativity of 1953, and it had traditionally been assumed that they derived from the Italian architecture he so loved. But Micky Piller discovered their true appearances in Escher’s works just four years ago when she received a telephone call asking her if she would like to visit Escher’s secondary school in Arnhem. “I opened the door and said, ‘it can’t be true!’ It was Escher world. Relativity features people going up and down stairs and that’s what you see there, in the school. And if you go there and look down the stairs, which he used to do when he was bored, you are looking at a space which changes all the time. When you walk up you see the underside of the stairs and House of Stairs is also a pure quotation because when you finish the stairs and turn back you see a hallway like the centre of another world. When I was there it was quiet. But it’s associated with movement in space and time. It would have been full of children going up and down.”
All this while it was as if Escher was attempting to capture the essence of his inner feelings of the limitlessness of time and space. It is perhaps natural then to think of Escher as being religious, but this was not the case. His wife was a devout Catholic and their three sons were baptised as such, but Escher himself actively avoided church and it is thought that his wife’s faith contributed to their eventual estrangement.
His was a more scientific, objective approach reinforced in 1954 when two great mathematical minds happened to see an exhibition of his work at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum while attending a mathematics conference there. A Dutch mathematician knew Escher’s work and thought its themes of cyclical repetition, tessellation and visual mind games would make an entertaining diversion for the delegates.
Two men in particular were immediately struck by Escher’s approach, as Patrick Elliott describes. “One of them was (Professor Sir) Roger Penrose who was very impressed by Escher’s works, particularly Relativity and another mathematician, a Canadian called Don Coxeter and they both made drawings based on Escher which they sent to the artist.”
Sir Roger Penrose, today the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford Universoty’s Mathematical Institute and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, recently explained Escher’s motivation. “He was hooked by the challenge of depicting infinity, but frustrated with drawing his shapes into one single point. Fresh inspiration came from one of my fellow mathematicians, Don Coxeter, who’d visited the same exhibition in Amsterdam as had excited me. Coxeter sent him a mathematical diagram which represented infinity – not as a central point – but as a circular boundary…Escher made his own version, but not without transforming the shapes first as in Circle Limit 1 (1958). The infinite world of the fish is completely represented in this picture. In fact, the way the fish are drawn is incredible. If you go right near the edge you can see they’re very, very accurately portrayed which is even better than you see in Coxeter’s picture where the triangles sort of give up close to the edge. But Escher doesn’t give up, he keeps going.”
Nevertheless Escher didn’t feel he had been accurate enough and when he introduced colour in Circle Limit III (1959), “the results were outstanding. Now you see infinity is represented here as this boundary and Escher’s picture goes very precisely right down to the edge…Coxeter commented that Escher got it absolutely right, right down to the millimetre. It’s an amazing thing that someone without any mathematical training had this instinctive understanding of what was going on in the geometry and he portrayed it so absolutely precisely.”
It is truly amazing given the fact that, as Escher himself said, “I never got a pass mark in maths. The funny thing is I seem to latch on to mathematical theories without realising what is happening.”
With the help of his father Lionel, another distinguished mathematician and geneticist, Roland Penrose constructed what he described as ‘problem pictures’ which were actually three-dimensional models made from wood. In a catalogue essay, Patrick Elliott writes that they “produced enough material for a short article and, not knowing what branch of learning it might fall under (it was not exactly mathematics and was not exactly art), submitted it in November 1956 to the British Journal of Psychology, where Lionel Penrose knew the editor. The co-authored article was published as ‘Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion’, in the February 1958 issue. The [article] introduced a perspectival drawing of a ‘tri-bar’, a three-dimensional triangle which looks logical at first glance, but is patently ‘impossible’, and a continuous flight of steps, which seem to go up (or down) forever. The text mentioned the ‘Numerous ideas in this field (which) have been exploited by Escher’.”
Penrose’s father devised the staircase model on which Escher based Ascending and Descending (1960) and Sir Roger himself developed the tri-bar from which he drew Waterfall (1961, see above), taking three impossible triangles to construct the impossible, perpetual water flow of the mill.
Escher was now famous. Kubrick had asked him to collaborate on 2001:A Space Odyssey (politely declined) and Mick Jagger had asked him to design an album cover for the Rolling Stones, but had addressed the artist as ‘Dear Maurits’. For a man who sometimes called even close friends ‘Mr’ this was unforgivably informal and was also rejected. But other bands did use his imagery as did cinema and advertising. Christopher Nolan even recreated the endless staircase in his 2010 science-fiction film Inception.
Rolling Stone magazine carried an article about Escher’s art in 1970 in which the author found a “close parallel of [his] vision to the themes of contemporary psychedelic art” and stated that Escher had anticipated elements of computer design. Escher’s question mark marginalia indicate he had no idea what the writer meant.
“Towards the end of his life Escher was famous,” says Patrick Elliott. “He’d got mathematicians fawning over him, hippies in California thinking he was the greatest thing ever and you can see that people find different things in his work. It’s the mind-bending character that appeals to the hippies and the scientific possibilities for the mathematicians.
“But it’s in the ’60s that his health starts to fade. His wife has left him by now and he’s in and out of hospital all the time, yet all he wants to do is get on with his next print. And so he does his last drawing, Snakes in 1969. It’s the same kind of idea as in the Circle Limit series but instead of a large object in the middle we’ve got a small thing in the middle, it’s not even really an object, more like chain mail and it’s like he’s set himself the most difficult task he could possibly do. And he wrote about it saying that it may look easy but they were very difficult to do. Then it gets bigger, then smaller, and if that’s not good enough he sticks three intertwining snakes in the middle.”
This intricate, seemingly impossible form of working has raised the question in some people’s minds as to whether Escher was actually autistic. Patrick Elliott believes he was, but Micky Piller, who spent many years studying her compatriot, thinks not. “As far as I know autistics have trouble in making and continuing friendships whereas Escher could do this very well. He was witty and able to have different points of view; he was a very liberal and open man. These are not the charcteristics of an autistic person and I was very much surprised when this came up.”
Recent research has portrayed autism in certain forms as a beneficial rather than a problemtic complaint and it is possible that Escher did possess some autistic traits but that they were not extreme and actually helped him creatively.
Micky feels that Escher was marginalised by the art world because he used traditional techniques such as woodblock rather than silk screen printing á la Warhol, and his work too tended to be seen as passé. Additionally, as mathematicians and scientists appreciated what he was doing and gave him ideas, this further defined his approach. As Micky Piller wrote in a personal communication, “I always feel, if you get a response on your work from only one particular group of people, of course your work will be influenced by it. So I presume if Escher had had more input from art historians, we don’t know what [work] would have happened then.”
But one mathematician has reason to be particularly grateful to Escher. Sir Roger Penrose has said that “the idea of a continuing cycle of time is something which has played a big role in ideas which I’ve been playing with recently in cosmology so it’s intriguing that these ideas are related somehow to these concepts that Escher played with and exhibited so dramatically in his art. And it is that insatiable curiosity for finding solutions to problems that might at first be thought of as impossible that is perhaps his most important legacy.”
The concept of a multiverse, that our universe is merely one of an infinite number of identical universes in space and time is now being seriously considered by some of Sir Roger’s fellow cosmologists. Indeed, a mathematical ‘proof’ was devised some years ago by a Russian academic which posited that if the multiverse existed then a contiguous universe should appear at the very edge of our own at a specific point. Deep space telescopes have now photographed just such a spot exactly as foretold so Escher’s constant striving for infinity and endless cycles may be becoming a reality.
When an Escher exhibition was held a few years ago in Brazil it was the highest attended that year in Latin America with more than one million visitors. The show was just as successful when staged at Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Modern Art earlier this year and the public are now flocking to its latest installation in Dulwich, “so the public appreciates him,” states Patrick Elliott, “but it’s the museum folk that don’t and I hope that if this show does anything it’s to put Escher back in his proper place as a proper artist.”
Maurits Cornelis Escher should definitely have the last word. Writing to a friend in 1956 he said: “Maybe I focus exclusively on the element of wonder, and therefore I also try to evoke only a sense of wonder in my viewers.”
[All images, unless otherwise stated, are copyright The M C Escher Company, The Netherlands and courtesy of Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.]
The Escher exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery has proved so popular that there will be extended opening hours on certain dates over the Christmas and New Year period. For information and to book tickets go to: