M C Escher at work

M.C. Escher, Combining Art and Mathematics

Leeuwarden native M.C. (Maurits) Escher (1898-1972) traveled extensively in Italy before heading to Spain, where the intricate geometric designs in the Moorish architecture would have a lasting influence on his work. This influence is especially pronounced through his use of tessellated imagery, in which he interlocked a series of irregular shapes, thereby creating an effect that is both strange and symmetrical. A good example of this type of work is his Study of Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles.

As much as Spain inspired him, Escher chose to return to Italy in 1923 and settled in Rome. As much as he cared for Italy, by 1935 the nation’s political climate under Mussolini had reached a point where Escher decided to move with his family to his wife’s native Switzerland. Removed from the Italian scenery he loved to depict, Escher shifted away from landscapes and into a genre he referred to as “mindscapes”, which consisted of images that came not from the outside world, but from his own imagination.

In 1941 he moved to Baarn in the Netherlands, where he would reside for almost thirty years. Among many other endeavors in his native country, he worked on portraying “impossible objects”, shown in such works as Belvedere and Ascending and Descending.

Another recurring motif in Escher’s work is mirrors. By incorporating mirrors along with their reflections, he strove to portray multiple realities. And by combining his artistic visions with a mathematical underpinning, he could generate the strangest of optical effects. Yet the artist sought to achieve more, not in the worldly sense of the word. Rather, he wanted to find a visual correlative for the concept of infinity. So, he turned to hyperbolic geometry. It was remarked in a leading mathematical journal that “Probably not since the Renaissance has an artist engaged in mathematics to the extent that Escher did.”

Yet he remained rather neglected by the art establishment. Escher was seventy years old before his homeland held its first retrospective exhibit of his work. Quite possibly, Escher had trouble fitting in with the art crowd. Despite struggling so severely at mathematics that he had been unable to complete high school, he once remarked of himself: “Although I am absolutely without training or knowledge in the exact sciences, I often seem to have more in common with mathematicians than with my fellow artists.”

His lifetime corpus of work consisted of about 450 engravings and woodcuts, along with some two thousand drawings and sketches.

For a more detailed exploration of M.C. Escher and his work, read Issue 52 of Dutch the magazine.

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Original article by: Ray Cavanaugh