Escher, Maurits Cornelius: Dutch graphic artist, born June 17, 1898 in Leeuwarden, and died March 27, 1972 in Laren. Though you won't encounter his name in art catalogues or find his art exhibited in galleries, he is quite probably the best-known artist of the 20th century. Most of his woodcuts and lithographs deal with approaches to ►infinity.
Escher hails from the Dutch town of Arnheim, where he grew up in the early 20th century. By the time he reached high school, he had lost his interest in what was taught in school, with the exception of the classes in fine art. Consequently, he had to repeat two school years and failed the final exam.
In 1919 he was sent to enroll at an arts academy in Haarlem in order to study architecture. His father, a civil engineer, considered this a good combination of artistic achievement, for which his son obviously had great potential, and solid scientific education. Soon, however, it became clear that Escher did not find much enjoyment in the subject of architecture either. He changed his major to decorative arts and was trained as a graphic artist by professor Samuel de Mesquita. He specialized in woodcutting, a technique that he soon mastered to perfection.
In 1922 he left the academy and became a backpack traveler. Together with two Dutch friends he hitchhiked all across Italy, finding motifs for his art in the architecture of Italian mountain villages and their cubic buildings towering high above terraces, nested into one another, interconnected by long staircases, the whole being embedded in a seemingly endless karst landscape. Escher produced drawing after drawing as drafts for the final woodcuts or engravings. He used only black and white, light and shadow in his drawings. Escher had no use for colors.
In 1924 he met his future wife, Jetta, at an Italian bed & breakfast. They set up house in Rome. Each spring Escher would travel with other painters to regions such as Campania, Abruzo, Sicily, Corsica, or Malta in order to collect new motifs and produce new drawings. The rest of the year was dedicated to the production of graphics and prints. It seemed like a perfect artist's life, except that Escher was unable to make a living with his art — and that Mussolini had come into power in 1922.
Escher was not interested in politics; he did, however, hate fanaticism and hypocrisy. In 1935, his nine-year old son was ordered to wear the uniform of the Fascist youth movement in school. Enough was enough! Escher left Italy and relocated to Switzerland with his family.
There he faced untextured snowscapes beneath a gloomy sky and architecture that was symmetrical, clean, and unimaginative. Escher had little use for this and was soon homesick for the Mediterranean and the sea in general. In 1936, he wrote a letter to a shipping company in Fiume. His proposal: Let him and his wife travel on the company's ships for a year; in exchange, he would deliver 48 prints of his own drawings made during the voyages. To his own surprise, the company accepted Escher's proposal even though they had probably never heard of him before.
Malta, 1936. A little picture puzzle: Which element in
this picture can be found infinitely many times in this dictionary?**
The voyages between Italy and Spain were Escher's last motif travels. One year later he relocated to Belgium and then finally back to the cold and rainy Netherlands. Outwardly, this move comes across like a failed artist's retreat. Escher was at the time almost 40 years old. He had not managed to secure a name for himself in the art world and still lived off an allowance by his family.
All of this, however, is made up for by a key event that took place on his last voyage: Escher encountered Islamic art at the Alhambra in Granada. ►Islam prohibits pictorial representations. Its art is not representational at all but abstract; it does not express feelings but ideas. However, it was not so much the abstractness of the art per se as it was the idea of infinity in the periodic patterns of the wall decorations that captivated Escher.
Up to that point, he had represented visible reality, but now he began to experiment with thought images. But how to represent infinitude in a picture? It can't be done solely by ►perspective methods, for these will never achieve more than a representation of our finite environment. Escher's initial attempts were spatial divisions as sections of infinite planes. These he populated not with abstract Moorish ornaments but with living things such as fish, birds, and reptiles.
The Mediterranean cities and landscapes now became his background for implementing further ideas and configurations. He chose compass, straightedge, and millimeter paper — all of which were despised by conventional artists — as his principal artistic tools. After all, in contrast to conventional artists, Escher worked on studies of interpenetrating worlds, singularities, metamorphoses and cycles.
He was perfectly aware that art critics would have little sympathy for his experiments. Thus, he was all the more surprised to achieve sudden popularity among scientists. An increasing number of his prints began showing up at universities and laboratories. Having hitherto received his creative ideas from published mathematical work such as Penrose's "impossible figures", he now saw his graphics being used as illustrations of work in the natural sciences and mathematics.
As a result of this, from 1955 onward Escher was able to make a living from license fees and his art. During that period, he explored a new method of approximating infinity. He came across an illustration of a non-Euclidian geometry in a book authored by the mathematician Coxeter, suggesting to him the idea of ►fractal images, in which the same pattern is repeated in different scales to form an infinite geometric sequence.
Meanwhile, Escher's name had become established even beyond Europe. He published books on divisions of plane as well as articles on approaches to infinity. In 1964 he was invited to give a lecture series in the USA and Canada, but unfortunately had to decline due to his failing health. In 1965 he received the Hilversum Culture Award.
"Humans cannot imagine that the flow of time will end at some point. For us time seems to continue infinitely even when the Earth has stopped orbiting, even when there are no more nights and days, no more summers or winters. Neither can we imagine that somewhere beyond the most distant stars in the night sky space has an end, a limit beyond which there is nothing. [...] This is why we cling to a chimera, a hereafter, a purgatory, heaven or hell, reincarnation or Nirvana, eternal in time and infinite in space."***
Escher died in 1972 in Laren, Netherlands. Seven years after his death he received due recognition as one of the most unique and fascinating graphic artists of the 20th century in Douglas Hofstadter's cult book Gödel, Escher, Bach (see ►Recommended Reading).
* The rights to all reproduced images are owned by M.C. Escher Company B.V., http://www.mcescher.com
** Please check under ►Recursion.
*** M.C.Escher, "Approaches to Infinity", from Escher, Vermeulen, and Ford, Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite, New York: Abrams, 1989.