M. C. Escher is one of the most instantly recognizable artists. His geometric patterns, tessellations, and impossible optical illusions are at least as famous as many of the master painters of the Renaissance. M. C. Escher posters, calendars, t-shirts, and other merchandise have not flagged in popularity since the artist’s death in 1972. But who was M. C. Escher, and what is it about his artwork that so captivates young and old alike?
M. C. Escher – the M. stands for Mauritius – was born in the Netherlands in 1898. Escher did not come from a wealthy background, and his student days were marked by poverty and struggle. His talent for art was discovered early on, and he left home to study architecture. However, Escher’s true passion was for the graphic arts, so he left architecture to study drawing instead.
Escher’s works are often mathematical in nature, and some of his most famous designs involve tessellations. A tessellation is a pattern made of a single geometric shape that is designed to interlock when it is tiled, creating a fascinating visual effect. The artist’s interest in tessellations led him to study other mathematical shapes, including symmetry groups. He toured the geometric mosaics of the Alhambra, a famous palace fortress in Spain. These mosaics remained one of his primary influences throughout his career. The first tessellation-inspired artwork Escher created was called “Eight Heads”, and was completed in 1922, while he was still an architecture student in Haarlem, Netherlands. This work depicts four male and four female heads tessellated together.
Escher expanded the general concept of a tessellation, and many of his tessellating patterns can be seen slowly morphing into interlocking images like birds and frogs. This technique is called structural morphing, and can be seen in works like “Development I” and “Development II”, as well as the 1956 work, “Smaller and Smaller I”. In addition to structural morphing, some of Escher’s works tessellate two and three-dimensional images together. This technique makes it appear as if a flat image slowly emerges into a three-dimensional world as it repeats. A few famous examples of this technique include “Day and Night” (1938), “Reptiles” (1943), and “Magic Mirror” (1946). In another technique, visible in “Swans” (1956), for example, shows tessellating figures on opposite sides of a looped paper strip, interlocking only at a center area where the two sides are brought together.
Art and Math
Tessellations were not the only mathematical patterns that interested M. C. Escher. He also created works based on a technique for mapping an infinite plane onto a finite circle. The technique was developed by French mathematician J. H. Poincare. After discovering it in a mathematics textbook, Escher used the techniques to create works like “Circle Limit” and “Square Limit.”
Although his tessellation-based technique is what brought Escher the immense fame he still enjoys, he occasionally expressed sorrow at being the only artist who did what he did. He is quoted as having said, “I wander totally alone around the garden of periodic drawings. However satisfying it may be to possess one’s own domain, yet loneliness is not as enjoyable as one might expect.” Despite the loneliness of originality, the world is richer for having Escher’s works in it. Anyone with an interest in both art and mathematics cannot help but be drawn to his tessellations. Impossible geometries and other forms of surrealism await those who study the work of M. C. Escher, and it might not be too much of a stretch to say that, for those who might otherwise not be interested in art, Escher can serve as a “gateway” to art appreciation.