M. C. Escher: Realities

Few viewers can resist exploring the visual puzzles and illusions inherent in the prints of Maurits Cornelis Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972). Escher’s works have had international popularity for decades, beginning at least with the publication of some of his art in the April 1966 “Mathematical Puzzles” column in the magazine Scientific American. In spite of this popular acclaim, the artist received little attention from the art world during his lifetime. His first retrospective exhibition, held in the Netherlands, was held when he was 70, at the same time that Escher retired from publishing his work. He died two years later.

Understanding why M. C. Escher and his works were disregarded by the art world is difficult. During his lifetime there were artistic movements and individual artists who might have appreciated his ideas and images. These include De Stijl, founded in 1917 by Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872 – 1944) and Theo van Doesburg (Dutch, 1883 – 1931); Surrealism, especially as practiced by René Magritte (Belgian, 1898 – 1967); and the Op Art movement, active in the 1960s and 70s. The art world may have considered his work too mechanical and craftsman-like. Escher himself may have been partly responsible, as it appears that he made no effort to enter the art world. His training at the Technical College of Delft and the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts may have affected his view of his works as “applied art” or “decorative art,” long viewed as second class art. Fortunately, in the contemporary era, such old-fashioned prejudices have begun to fall away and Escher’s work can be enjoyed in museums and galleries around the world.

Though Escher thought of himself as lacking mathematical ability, his works drew the interest and enthusiasm of prominent mathematicians and crystallographers. His research and practice with tessellation (interlocking repeated patterns) has drawn praise from mathematicians. For Escher, tessellation verged on an obsession. He said: "It remains an extremely absorbing activity, a real mania to which I have become addicted, and from which I sometimes find it hard to tear myself away."

In addition to his interest in tessellation, represented in the slideshow by Day and Night (Blue Variant), Escher explored other mathematical and geometric concepts throughout his career, such as single point linear perspective, symmetry, and the depiction of polyhedra, that is, three dimensional solids with many planes, usually 6 or more. Escher is also well known for his images containing optical illusions based on impossible objects, that is, two dimensional images that are convincingly three dimensional to a viewer but could not actually exist as a physical three dimensional objects. Channels carrying water in Waterfall demonstrate this illusion.

Playing with multiple levels of reality and the interaction of different spaces was one of Escher’s favorite strategies. One can see this in many of the works included in the slide show. Nature scenes like Puddle and Three Worlds draw our attention to the beautiful layering we might encounter in the natural world. Prints that are more concerned with the infinite, Mobius Strip II and Snakes draw us into never-ending lines and shapes while interpolating life-like creatures into the mathematical geometry. The interaction of two dimensional and the three dimensional forms was a primary interest of this artist and you will see it in nearly every example here. Snakes was one of Escher's most complex creations and we are fortunate that he was filmed as he worked on it. A video excerpt of this film is available on YouTube; it shows portions of each stage of production: drawing, block carving, inking, and printing.

M. C. Escher left us a treasure trove of intricately crafted picture puzzles, of which our slideshow is just a small selection. Enjoy!

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If the caption obscures part of the artwork, click on the image to turn off the caption.

White Cat
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut print on light tan wove paper, 6 9/16 x 6 9/16 in. l 16.6 x 16.6 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
This print was created when the artist was still a student and is one of many works in which Escher observed the people, animals, and landscape around him as he mastered printmaking techniques.
Hand with Reflecting Sphere
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Lithograph printed with black ink on wove paper, 12 1/2 × 8 3/8 in. l 31.8 × 21.3 cm. Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI. USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
The artist depicts himself in a carefully detailed room all reflected in a mirrored sphere and that reflection reveals to the viewer that it is Escher's own hand which holds the sphere.
Still Life and Street
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut print on paper, 19 3/16 x 19 5/16 in. l 48.7 x 49 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
In Escher's first print depicting an impossible reality, we expect a window and sill to separate the interior and exterior spaces; instead the shelf containing the still life extends to become the street and the nearest buildings act as bookends for the books on the shelf. The town is based on Savona, Italy, one of many Italian towns which Escher visited.
Day and Night (Blue Variant)
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut in colors on tissue-thin laid Japan paper, 15 3/8 x 26 5/8 in. l 39.1 x 67.6 cm. Private collection. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
This print was one of the most popular of Escher's designs during his life time; he printed over 600 copies of it. This example, which sold at auction in 2022, is unusual for the use of blue ink in addition to the usual monochromatic design.
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Lithograph, 13 1/8 x 15 1/4 in. l 33.4 x 38.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
Of works like this, Escher said "The flat shape irritates me — I feel like telling my objects, you are too fictitious, lying there next to each other static and frozen: do something, come off the paper and show me what you are capable of! ... So I make them come out of the plane. ... My objects ... may finally return to the plane and disappear into their place of origin."
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Wood engraving on paper, 12 5/8 × 10 1/4 in. l 32.07 × 26.04 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
In this wood engraving, Escher caged two chameleons in a polyhedral shape floating through space. He said he chose chameleons because they would be able to hold on as the cage rotated in space. In addition to his interest in geometry, Escher was an amateur astronomer with his own telescope.
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut print in black, green, and brown, 9 7/16 x 12 5/8 in. l 23.9 x 32 cm. Museum Escher in Het Paleis, The Hague, Netherlands. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
This work harks back to the nature studies Escher had executed in his youth, but he was still playing with different levels of reality: earth, water, and sky. Note the tracks in the muddy road, footprints, car tires, and bike tires, traveling from lower left to upper right and back.
The Artist (Maurits Cornelis Escher) working at his atelier (on “Sphere Surface with Fish,” 1958)
Pedro Ribeiro Simões (photographer)
late 1950s
Via Wikipedia. © Pedro Ribeiro Simões
M. C. Escher, approximately age 60, at work on a large-scale drawing of one of his compositions.
Three Worlds
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Lithograph on paper, 14 5/16 × 9 3/4 in. l 36.2 × 24.7 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
As in "Puddle," in this lithograph, Escher incorporated images from three realities, the reflections of trees symbolize the world above the water, the leaves identify the world of the water's surface, and peeking through the leaves, a fish inhabits the world underwater.
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Lithograph on paper, 15 × 11 13/16 in. l 38 × 30 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
The waterfall and water channels constitute a perpetual motion machine and the water channels are constructed of two impossible objects known as Penrose triangles. Atop the left tower is a polyhedron known as Escher's solid in honor of the artist's rediscovery of this geometric form.
Mobius Strip II (Red Ants)
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut in colors on Japan paper, 17 7/8 x 8 1/8 in. l 45.4 x 20.6 cm. Private collection. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
Of this work, Escher said "An endless ring-shaped band usually has two distinct surfaces, one inside and one outside. Yet on this strip nine red ants crawl after each other and travel the front side as well as the reverse side. Therefore the strip has only one surface."
M. C. Escher (Dutch, 1898 – 1972)
Woodcut print in orange, green, and black, printed from 3 blocks, 19 5/8 x 17 3/8 in. l 49.8 x 44.1 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. © The M.C. Escher Company B.V.
This was Escher's last published work. It was created in a complex process of three carved blocks, printed and rotated three times, for a total of nine print operations to complete each finished print.