«Hand with reflecting sphere» (1935), lithograph, 31 x 21.3 cm
Six hundred years. This is the duration of the great parable of Flemish and Dutch art throughout the history of art. A journey that ends in the twentieth century with Maurits Cornelis Escher, enigmatic and visionary engraver, almost a revived Albrecht Dürer propelled to the relativism and complexity of the contemporary world.
«He is too stubborn, too philosophical-literary, the boy lacks vivacity and originality, he is too little of an artist». This was how young Escher was described by the professors of the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. A far too harsh judgement. Actually, although his undisputed talent for drawing and his ability to master engraving techniques were evident from his youth, his artistic development was the result of a long process.
Maurits Cornelis Escher, known to his friends as ‘Mauk’, was born on 17 June 1898 in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, the youngest child in a large, wealthy family. His father, a hydraulic engineer, at least wanted him to be an architect, but he supported his son’s vocation.
A trip to Italy in 1922 changed the young artist’s life: Liguria, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast made a deep impression on him and he decided to stay there. Tall and thin, with large, penetrating eyes, the bearded boy had a calm and thoughtful character. He soon found the woman of his life in Italy, Giulia Umiker, the daughter of a Swiss banker, whom he married in 1924. After their honeymoon in France, the couple settled in Rome, where two of their three children were born. Here they led a comfortable and stimulating life, enlivened by the presence of his in-laws and some nice Swiss friends, with whom Escher made periodic trips along the Peninsula and to the Mediterranean.
Due to his aversion to the growing political fanaticism, the family left Italy in 1935, and moved first to Switzerland, then to Belgium – where his third child was born -, and finally to his native Netherlands. In the quiet village of Baarn, Escher lived a very private life that was occasionally interrupted only by rare trips, such as that to Istanbul in 1957. It was at this point that his artistic production reached maturity and notoriety, with increasingly complex and extraordinary works, until his death on 27 March 1972 after a long illness.
His education and artistic context
It is not easy to classify this artist in the panorama of the twentieth century art, already very fragmentary in itself. His artistic career began in the Art Nouveau cauldron, from which he drew a plastic and decorative stylistic basis. However, he wanted to investigate nature’s forms in depth, initially more in the scientific than in the artistic sense. Despite his poor marks at school, he inherited his father’s passion for astronomy, while with his half-brother Berend, he shared a passion for crystals and minerals. Bach’s music, so harmonious in its mathematical structure, also struck him deeply.
The Italian experience was very important, mainly because of the contact with small medieval villages, Renaissance geometries and illusionistic Baroque perspectives. The daring works of the 18th century architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi were undoubtedly a major influence, as well as the Arabic decorations he saw in Sicily and at the Alhambra in Granada, much appreciated during a trip to Spain.
However, the Italian period only produced sporadic landscapes and a few illustrations. In fact, as long as he remained in Italy, Escher was continually stimulated by shapes, colours, sounds and scents. It was only when he returned to northern Europe that he was able to put his great cultural background in order and manifest a truly innovative style. Before returning to his homeland, the short period he spent in Belgium (between 1937 and 1941) was also relevant for his contact with one of the most important surrealist painters, namely his contemporary René Magritte, who was also one of the few contemporary artists he held in high esteem. Many similarities link him to the Belgian artist, but Escher was not a true surrealist: while Magritte tried to surprise the observer with the impossible, in a purely oneiric and psychoanalytical dimension, Escher was striking, and is still today, because his figurative logic, deeply rooted in science, makes the impossible possible.
«Day and Night» (1938), xylograph, 39.3 x 67.8 cm
All of Escher’s works are technically perfect and each one required months of study and preparation. From 1935 onwards, the artist produced around seventy prints, mainly lithographs, that is, with a stone matrix, and woodcuts, that is, with a wooden matrix. The omnipresent theme is the study of the structure of space, which he took on in two different periods: the first one (1935-1946) concentrated the concepts of simultaneity, metamorphosis and cyclical patterns; on the second one (1947-1970), he focused more on perspective, stereometric structures and approximations of infinity.
Three fundamental pieces can be distinguished from these two periods. The first is the famous «Hand with reflecting sphere» (1935), in which the sphere also reflects the artist’s face itself. The real and the virtual merge simultaneously, breaking the barriers between the artist and the observer, expanding their perceptual potential. Therefore, the desire to represent a modern, complex and multidimensional reality arises, where the potential of the mirror is imposed, a reference found in Van Eyck‘s famous «Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife».
The second fundamental piece, «Day and Night» (1938), is striking for its symmetry and the strange metamorphosis of the fields, which come to life in the form of birds. On closer inspection, however, the symmetry does not present any definite lines of demarcation, in a sort of space-time distortion that echoes relativistic themes, which are even more explicit in the third work of reference, called «Relativity» (1953). Space is disorienting, without unambiguous points of view: three different perspectives, or rather, three gravitational fields, operate at right angles in which anonymous figures move; what for one figure is a floor, for others it is a wall. It seems impossible, but astronauts have shown that in the absence of gravity any surface can be a wall or a floor.
As in all Escher’s works, apparently absurd representations that contradict everyday experience – in other words, paradoxical – make sense when read in the light of the sensational scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
«Relativity», lithograph (1953), 27.7 x 29.2 cm
As far as we have seen, Escher’s artistic production is unquestionably anchored in rationality. Yet the artist’s aim was to cause a very important emotion in the observer – astonishment -, or rather, the wonder that arises when faced with the unveiling of the mysteries of nature, governed by fascinating mathematical laws and numerical constants. This does not, however, exhaust the mystery that permeates Escher’s works. Knowing his pronounced ‘philosophical-literary’ attitude, it is likely that there is something more.
Mathematical ratios and the filling of space into geometric shapes, technically called ‘tessellation’, were almost an obsession for the artist, who even cut cheese into regular shapes. This reminds us of old Pythagoras and his obsession with numbers, but it also reminds us of Parmenides, according to whom the void does not exist, there is no room for true movement and, therefore, everything is immutable; it is our senses that deceive us. This brings us back to eternal Plato, to his «Allegory of the cave», which describes an anonymous humanity enslaved by illusion. And in Escher there are many of the reflected and illusory spaces, which contradict the senses. The mirror, a frequent feature in his works, could at this point be seen not only as an optical instrument, but also as a symbol of knowledge, a means of going beyond matter.
The artist’s predilection for black and white could also suggest an almost Manichean reflection on the contrast between Good and Evil, a relationship that obsessed him since he was a boy. Over the years, the attitude towards this issue became more and more cryptic, while at the same time his fame grew. Many artists began to be inspired by him, from painters to fashion designers to film-makers: for example, he was a source of inspiration for two great directors, namely Dario Argento, who explicitly quotes him in his masterpiece “Suspiria” (1977), and Christopher Nolan, who paid homage to him in his visionary “Inception” (2010). Would Escher have liked that?
These images come from the book “The magic mirror of M. C. Escher” by Bruno Ernst (TASCHEN GmbH, 1978).
These images are protected by copyright and are shown for illustrative purposes only, without any commercial purpose.