The eye and the intellect play off one another in surprising and beautiful ways in the art of M.C. Escher. Where the Renaissance masters used shading and perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth on two dimensional surfaces, Escher turned those tricks in on themselves to create puzzles and paradoxes. He manipulated our faculties of perception not simply to please the senses, but to stimulate the mind.
His cool, analytic tendency was apparent from the start. “Maurits Escher is a good graphic artist,” wrote the headmaster of the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in 1922, the year of Escher’s graduation, “but he lacks the right artistic temperament. His work is to too cerebral–neither emotional nor lyrical enough.” Escher’s work became even more cerebral over time, as it grew in geometric sophistication. In describing what went into the creation of his woodcuts and engravings, Escher wrote:
The ideas that are basic to them often bear witness to my amazement and wonder at the laws of nature which operate in the world around us. He who wonders discovers that this is in itself a wonder. By keenly confronting the enigmas that surround us, and by considering and analyzing the observations that I had made, I ended up in the domain of mathematics. Although I am absolutely innocent of training or knowledge in the exact sciences, I often seem to have more in common with mathematicians than with my fellow artists.
The affinity between Escher and mathematicians is described in the scene above from the the BBC documentary, The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher. “Mathematicians know their subject is beautiful,” says Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick. “Escher shows us that it’s beautiful.”
If the BBC clip whets your appetite, be sure to watch Metamorphose: M.C. Escher, 1898-1972 (below), a 2002 documentary by Jan Brodriesz. The one-hour film gives an excellent overview of the Dutch artist’s life and work, and features a rare interview with Escher, along with scenes of him creating his art. If you’re a fan of Escher, this film is a must-see.