by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery of Art, Washington
Puddle by M.C. Escher, 1952

Escher's exploration of the limits of vision

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 15 January 2005


Maurits Cornelis Escher was a visionary, who sought in his art to give expression to what he perceived to lie beneath the surface of immediate appearances. Outside the somewhat rarefied realms of connoisseurs of printmaking, where he has always been esteemed, his constituency has been a curious one. In the 1960s and '70s, many college students' rooms had an Escher poster of his waterwheel, driven by a perpetual flow that appeared simultaneously to run uphill and downhill, or his eye-teasing staircases in impossible repeating configurations.

Before then, Escher's work had come to fascinate scientists -- fifty years ago a major retrospective was held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to coincide with an international mathematics congress -- offering as it did ingenious, palpable shape to the kind of theoretical problems and paradoxes with which they were grappling.

'Our consciousness is very limited, we know only a minuscule part of the world in which we live,' Escher remarked in 1952. Nonetheless, he spent much of his career trying to find ways of reflecting the larger picture, capturing in microcosm a mysterious, elusive, grander universe.

That Escher chose the print, rather than drawing, painting or sculpture to express his unique vision has led to his being overlooked or perfunctorily dealt with in many a general survey of 20th-century art. But his originality and skills as a draughtsman deserve to win him wider attention.

Escher spent most of the 1920s and the first half of the '30s in Italy. He was based in Rome but undertook numerous journeys, especially to the south, which gave rise to some extraordinary landscapes. He had his first exhibition in Siena, which was followed by others in Rome, the Netherlands and the United States.

The artist found an early admirer in G.J. Hoogewerff, the director of the Dutch Institute in Rome, who befriended him and did everything he could to promote this shy, self-effacing young man. Appropriately enough, as one of the events celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding, the Institute is staging 'In the Eye of Escher,' an exhibition of over 100 prints and drawings. The exhibition continues in Palazzo Caffarelli at the Capitoline Museums until Jan. 23.

Born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, in 1898, Escher spent most of his childhood in Arnhem, where his engineer father had been posted. He was a fragile child and appears to have learned more at home than at school. His father built a wood workshop in the garden and employed a professional to teach his five children carpentry. A telescope was set up on the roof of the house to study the sky at night, and long walks in the surrounding countryside developed Escher's love of nature.

Escher's parents encouraged him to study architecture, but while at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Design, Escher was spotted by Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, the distinguished teacher of graphic arts there. At the teacher's urging, Escher's parents reluctantly agreed to allow him to abandon architecture to devote himself to mastering drawing and engraving. Escher developed a passion for woodcuts and wood engraving, which was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

However, overwork and a natural tendency to introspection led Escher to become depressed and, in 1921, his parents took him to Italy for a change of scene and so that he could broaden his artistic education. He returned there via Spain the following year, with the intention of staying longer. In 1923, on one of his excursions, he met Jetta Umiker, a Swiss woman, and within six months they were engaged. They married the following year and the couple moved to Rome, where two sons were born.

One of Escher's most remarkable projects was a series of 12 woodcuts entitled 'Nocturnal Rome.' The preliminary sketches were executed with white chalk on black paper, illuminated by a tiny flashlight attached to the artist's jacket. The following day, each scene was transferred to wood block for printing. He also secured permission to sketch in St. Peter's, where he produced a dizzingly vertiginous view of the interior seen from the gallery of the dome.

Despite his devotion to the country, Escher's dislike of Fascism made the artist increasingly uncomfortable there. He objected to his sons' being obliged to wear the uniform of Mussolini's youth movement and their taking part in Fascist parades. Finally, in 1935, the family left for Switzerland, later moving on to Belgium and the Netherlands, where they spent the war years. In 1944, Escher's revered teacher Mesquita, with whom he had kept in touch after graduating, was arrested and murdered by the Nazis, along with his wife and child.

The move back to northern Europe created a crisis in Escher's art. He found the gray skies dispiriting and the architecture and landscape unexciting. However, his work now took new directions, often through the transmutation of his Italian experiences into novel and unexpected forms.

His Roman experiments with nocturnal images resurfaced in his famous visual puzzle 'Day and Night' (1938), depicting geese flying in opposite directions, metamorphosing into a patchwork of fields dividing mirror images of night and day scenes of a winding river and canal-girt village. Later, the naïve architecture and inexact perspective of the Italian primitives, such as Duccio (whom Escher admired more than the artists of the high Renaissance and Baroque), proved a starting point for Escher's impossible architecture of staircases and watercourses. (Piranesi's fantastical Roman 'Prisons' prints also surely helped inspire these.)

Deprived of the stimulation of the Italian scenery of mountains and coastlines, intriguing rock formations, hilltop towns, harbors and seaside villages, Escher began more and more to work purely from his imagination. Staircases became abstract loops, spirals, vortices and helixes. This strange geometry was often adorned and enlivened by (or shown metamorphosing into) fish, birds, bees, ants, or even miniature smoke-breathing crocodiles.

In 'Three Worlds' (1955) a beautifully executed, shadowy carp lurks below the surface of a pond, reflecting three bare trees, which on second glance take on the appearance of roots reaching down into the water in search of nourishment. In another picture of the early 1950s, a puddle in a muddy woodland track bearing the imprints of car tires and footprints, captures, in its glassy stillness, overarching trees, and above them a transient full moon floating across the limitless, illuminated sky beyond.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023