Mathematics Made Visible: The Extraordinary Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

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, 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.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Math Cours­es

M.C. Escher’s Per­pet­u­al Motion Water­fall Brought to Life: Real or Sleight of Hand?

Inspi­ra­tions: A Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

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