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How M.C. Escher transformed our perception of art
Get inspired 17 Jan 2022

How M.C. Escher transformed our perception of art

M.C. Escher, Bond of Union, April 1956
M.C. Escher, Bond of Union, April 1956

M.C. Escher (1898-1972) is an artist influenced by the world of mathematics. Playing with perspective and theorems, his works are treasures of imagination. Throughout his life, he created thousands of works filled with impossible architecture. To this day, we owe him drawings that have transformed our perception of art.

Laborious beginnings

Nothing seemed to predestine Maurits Cornelis Escher, better known by the diminutive M.C. Escher, to such a fate. He was born in 1898 in the Netherlands in a middle-class family. As a child, he was far from being a genius. He was often ill and was then placed in a special school. He repeated classes. After years of poor grades, he enrolled in a school of architecture. He failed. And finally he ended up in a decorative arts school…

Everything changed during a trip to Italy and Spain. He becomes passionate about old buildings. He draws views of places that already bear the mark of a singular mind. The perspectives he draws are deliberately false, he distorts the patterns, emphasizes incongruous details.

One building fascinates him more than any other, it is the Alhambra in Granada. This Moorish architecture is full of subtle, geometric architectural patterns, which multiply ad infinitum. He is bewitched. The particularity of Islamic art interests him particularly. Indeed, Islam having limited figurative representations, it is in organic and geometric patterns that artisans express all their talents. These motifs are often influenced by astronomy and mathematical knowledge, a field in which the Arab architects of the 14th century attached special importance. It became clear that the influence on M.C. Escher would be significant.

Detail of the Alhambra
Detail of the Alhambra

M.C. Escher and mathematics

Euclidean geometry, Riemann surface, cylindrical perspective, hyperbolic map… Do these terms seem obscure to you?! For M.C. Escher, these are his artist’s tools. He is passionate about mathematical theories. They’re his artistic vocabulary.

Escher’s meeting and his friendship with the mathematician Roger Penrose and Harold Coxeter greatly contributed to the development of this knowledge. Thus, M.C. Escher managed to develop visionary works, which became fantasized mathematical visual projections.

Among the artist’s other objects of fascination, let us mention the “impossible objects”. These are objects which, thanks to the multiplication of viewing points, or by other optical stratagems, manage to create forms that cannot exist in the real world. Among these, take mention of the Möbius Ribbon, which was first described in 1858. It is an endless ribbon, having neither interior nor exterior.

There’s also the Necker’s Cube, mentioned in 1832. It is a drawing of the edges of a cube. When two lines cross, the drawing does not show which is in front and which is behind. This makes the drawing ambiguous; and it can be interpreted in two different ways. When a person observes the drawing, he or she alternately notices that each of the two interpretations is valid. But once observed, the viewer will tend to focus on one reading, making the other disappear, creating a thwarted multiple perception.

Finally, let’s mention the Penrose triangle, named after M.C. Escher’s friend Roger Penrose. It is an object that can only exist in two dimensions, on paper. Once entered the third dimension, one notes that only an optical stall can maintain the illusion.

From left to right, Penrose triangle, Mobius tape, Necker cube
From left to right, Penrose triangle, Mobius tape, Necker cube

Two famous works by M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher produced 448 prints, and more than 2,000 drawings and sketches. In the midst of this plethoric work, some have particularly contributed to his fame.

In particular, The House of Stairs – a house that makes you dizzy! Thanks to the multiple points of view, the architecture of this house is totally impossible. It is no longer just gravity that slips under our feet, it is everything! Let’s take a closer look… Do you see the Penrose triangle?

M.C. Escher, The House of Stairs, 1951, Lithography
M.C. Escher, The House of Stairs, 1951, Lithography

In parallel with the mathematical theories he puts into images, Escher’s drawings are also strongly inspired by the art of trompe-l’oeil. Indeed, this pictorial genre is entirely based on the illusion created in the gaze of the spectator. Thanks to perspective effects and the role played by light and shadow, the work goes out of the frame. Like in Hands drawing, a large part of the illusion is based on the fact that the hands come out of the frame which seemed, at first glance, to delimit the work.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948, lithograph
M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948, lithograph

Research into perspective

There is one area of ​​study to which M.C. Escher devoted part of his career : Perspective research. Since the Renaissance, the rules of perspective have remained relatively unchanged. Indeed, to represent a volume or a depth, the first thing to do is to determine one or more vanishing points. It is an imaginary point, which represents the direction of the gaze, and towards which lines of flight converge.

However, according to M.C. Escher, and a few other artists before him, this technique of perspective is incorrect. Indeed, it does not take into account the retinal perspective. That is, the fact that the human eye perceives volumes not in straight lines, but in curves, that is to say in a convex way.

He calls it the cylindrical perspective. In an unfinished work that has remained famous, he attempts to make a representation of it. But the center of the work remained forever empty…

Until a few years ago! A team of mathematicians from the University of Leiden solved it. By using a mathematical notion called “Rienmann surface,” they completed the void left by M.C. Escher. From the torsion grid left by the artist and by proceeding by expansion and visual projection, they succeeded in solving the posthumous enigma of M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher, Exhibition of prints, lithograph
M.C. Escher, Exhibition of prints, lithograph

Posterity of M.C. Escher

Today, M.C. Escher is an artist internationally recognized for his visionary works. He has strongly inspired sculptors, novelists, filmmakers, to compose impossible and phantasmagorical universes. Some video game worlds have even attempted to reproduce part of his works.

View of the video game Archamber
View of the video game Archamber

Streetwear brands have also appropriated several of his designs to feature on their clothes. In particular the famous Supreme brand. Or the brand Palace Skateboards. The legacy of this genius artist has not ceased to amaze us. And you, did you already know M.C. Escher?