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A Little History:
M. C. Escher 1898-1972

The graphic works of M.C. Escher have had far-reaching influence in the art world, science community, and international design industry. People the world over still study his perspective designs and debate the apparent relationships, but mostly remain fascinated while enjoying the art of his unique visual concepts.

Escher worked mostly in wood and lino cuts, lithographs, and mezzotint prints. This, in itself, is amazing when you realize the complexity and subtlety of some of his works. For example, his "Metamorphosis" print (1939-40) was created from 29 separate wood blocks that were used to create a print that was about 8 inches wide by 23 feet long. In it, squares turn into lizards, which turn into a honeycomb of bees, which turn into birds, which turn into well, you get the picture.

Escher's artwork displayed similar metamorphosis as his career developed. Originally, his prints were semi-realistic observations of landscapes, architectural studies, and portraits. While masterfully executed, these works telegraphed the unique style, themes, and perspectives of the images yet to come.

Escher went on to explore the "regular divisions of a plane." Classic among this type of work is "Sky and Water" (1938, woodcut), where birds fly down into the water's surface and magically transform into fish below the surface. Using this same concept, Escher explored infinity as his interlocking patterns cascade down a never-ending spiral or wrap around the edges of a globe, while maintaining perfect perspective as they recede. Like peering into two mirrors, the images uniformly diminish into infinity.

Ever experimental, Escher explored the use of unlimited spaces, the relationships of spatial rings and spirals, reflections in water, and spherical reflections. He also used visual inversions in his works and depicted the relativistic conflict between flat and spatial planes.

Perhaps most beguiling are his lithographic series of impossible structures that at first seem normal enough, but ultimately prove to be a visual enigma. This is most apparent in "Belvedere" (1958), where the upper floor of the structure is impossibly perpendicular to the ground floor. Escher further tantalizes with "Ascending and Descending" (1960), where hooded figures are climbing both up and down the same staircase. Similarly, in "Waterfall" (1961), water is seen defying gravity by flowing upward toward the top of the falls.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, Holland, on June 17, 1898, the son of an engineer. He received his first drawing instruction at a secondary school in Arnhem. Here, F.W. van der Haagen helped him develop his graphic aptitude by teaching him linoleum cut design and construction techniques, a medium that M.C. Escher would work in for much of his career.

By 1919, Escher enrolled in the School of Architecture and Ornamental Design in Haarlem to continue his studies in graphic techniques. Here, his tutor was S. Jessurun de Mesquita, whose strong personality greatly influenced Escher's development with bold concepts of design and style.

After completing his formal education in 1922, Escher traveled through Italy and decided to settle in Rome in 1924. During his 10 year stay in Italy he made many study-tours of the region, visiting Abruzzia, the Amalfi coast, Calabria, Sicily, Corsica, and Spain.

While visiting the Alhambra (the Moorish palace in Grenada, Spain), Escher studied its architecture and design of wall and floor mosaics. It was here that he was introduced to the concept of "regular division of planes." The Moors were prevented by Islam to incorporate "craven images" into their art, so all their works consisted purely of abstract geometrical patterns. This limit did not apply to Escher, who advanced this style by introducing naturalistic figures such as birds, fish, reptiles, and humans as design elements.

In perhaps his most famous lithograph, "Reptiles" (1943) is a narrative continuation of the series of "regular plane shapes." From the lower edge of a sketch pad covered with stylized, reptile-like figures, an increasingly three-dimensional reptile emerges. It then crawls over a zoology book and onto other cascading plane objects until it finally comes full circle and reintegrates back into the flat surface of the sketch pad, becoming once again part of the two-dimensional interlocking pattern.

In 1934 Escher left Italy, spent two years in Switzerland and five years in Brussels before settling in Baarn (Holland) in 1941. It was here that he lived and worked until the time of his death on March 27, 1972, at the age of 73.

Toward the end of his life, M.C. Escher became more popular than ever. Baby boomers the world over newly discovered and marveled at the graphics that he had created throughout his career. Some of his works were translated into 1960's psychedelic posters, while other illustrations became pop icons on record album covers and the like.

Many well-received books have been compiled on his life and body of graphic works. Scientific studies have also been conducted on Escher's work in an effort to comprehend the artist's mathematical principals and theories of perspective and symmetry that are evident.

There is no way that words can adequately describe a classic M.C. Escher illustration, since impressions are often influenced by the viewer's own subjective orientation. In short, the viewer tends to describe what he/she believe they are witnessing, which can vary by individual. The only way to fully experience the art of M.C. Escher is to view and study it, and like any great work of art, you will probably discover some new facet each time you look.


--National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: "M. C. Escher: A Centennial Tribute" is a celebration of the 20th century Dutch artist's works. Through April 26.

--Museum of Modern Art, NYC: "New Concepts in Printmaking 1: Peter Halley" is the first in a series of exhibitions that explore artistic developments which push at the frontiers of traditional printmaking. "From Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Andy Warhol: Exploring Techniques" focuses on how artists have used woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprint to create an extraordinary range of works. Both through February 8.

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Copyright ARTtalk Vol. 8 No. 3 -- January 1998