Dutch artist M.C. Escher and his mind-bending graphic art masterpieces
Maurits Cornelius Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist and draughtsman who is remembered for his mind-bending works of art. Ladders leading to nowhere, water flowing upwards, strange faceless beings and fish and birds interlocking are just a few of his whimsical creations.
Impossible objects that he is famed for include stairs that make no sense in Ascending and Descending (1960), infinity, as seen in his Drawing (1948) where two hands draw each other, reflections, playful relativity and other unusual perspectives.
His many famous masterpieces have made a strong mark on the art world. There are a lot of surprising things about Escher.
Fame arrived late in life
Escher produced unforgettable works of art in the form of woodcuts, pencil drawings, mezzotints and lithographs. The thing was, during his own lifetime, he tended to be overlooked internationally and his work was not deemed in any way remarkable by art critics in the international forum when he was in his 20s and 30s.
Although his work was a lot less famous during his prime than it is now, he wasn’t completely forgotten in the public forum. He did have his work shown in 319 exhibitions in his whole lifetime, mostly locally in small galleries in the Netherlands and in Italy when he lived there. As he got older, mathematicians and fans of all things psychedelic began to idolise him.
Finally, in the mid-1950s, he had a large-scale exhibition of his work in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and an even larger one at the White Museum in Washington D.C. His art did garner attention, but not to the same extent as Mondrian or Rembrandt in their lifetimes, for instance. Like Van Gogh, his posthumous fame outweighed the attention he got during his lifetime.
The Escher family and Escher’s background and training gives a good insight into how the artist and his oeuvre came to be. Escher was the youngest son of a civil engineer. Born in Leeuwarden in the north of the Netherlands, he grew up mostly in Arnhem, in the east of the country. He did very poorly at school and even failed the second grade.
For a while, Escher studied at the Technical University of Delft, before failing, dropping out and moving to the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts, where he dabbled in architecture before moving over to a specialisation in decorative arts. He studied under the notable graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita.
Influenced by his travels abroad
The year 1922 was an important one for Escher. The 24-year old went travelling in Italy and Spain and became enchanted by the landscapes and the decorated buildings and interiors. Escher was fascinated by tessellation, or tiled patterns, which is actually a recognised area of mathematics. In Spain, he encountered intricate examples: he observed the Moorish decorative tiles in the Alhambra in Granada and in the Mezquita in Córdoba.
All that time he spent in southern Europe, he was not particularly moved by the Renaissance or Baroque architecture or decoration – it was the Moorish influences that captivated him, and this can be perceived in the types of buildings he conveyed throughout his career.
The exercises and artworks he did in relation to tiles give the impression of 3D images on flat paper. Highly influenced by this concept, he played around with optical illusions that flirt with your senses, as seen in the video below.
In 1923, he had his first public exhibition, in the Italian city of Siena. A year later, he was living in Rome, married to a Swiss woman, Jetta Umiker, and soon he would be a father to three sons.
It was in the 1950s that his fame really kicked off. After a notably glowing review written by graphic artist Mark Severin in the English art journal “The Studio” of Escher’s work in a group exhibition in Antwerp, Belgium, events began to snowball.
The review was read by an influential journalist who went to visit Escher in his studio. By this time, Escher was living in Baarn in the province of Utrecht. The journalist wrote two in-depth articles about Escher and his life and work, one in Time magazine and one in Life magazine. A broader world audience was beginning to pay attention.
Escher was celebrated in his lifetime by mathematicians and hippies
Escher was practically worshipped by the maths world. Mathematicians and scientists regarded him as very important because his work was so geometrical. Escher himself claimed to have no affinity for maths. He was not formally trained in maths, but his work is thoroughly mathematical. In 1954, the International Mathematical Congress took place in Amsterdam, which led to Escher’s exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.
His work began to turn heads internationally during the hippy counterculture, because psychedelic drugs were gaining popularity and his alluring artworks were seen as psychedelic in themselves, such as in Ascending and Descending, Waterfall and Metamorphosis I, II and III. Mick Jagger, frontman of the Rolling Stones, was so enthusiastic about Escher’s work that he requested Escher to design an album cover. Escher declined.
Enjoy Escher's art online or in person
Visit the official Escher website, where you can enjoy Escher's mesmerising works online in all their glory and you can even watch video interviews with the artist himself.
Something to bookmark for when the coronavirus crisis is behind us: visit Escher in the Palace (Escher in Het Paleis) in The Hague! This is a permanent exhibition dedicated to M.C. Escher and one of the most intriguing of all the Dutch museums.
Located inside the stately Lange Voorhout Palace, one of the many interesting buildings in The Hague, it is sometimes simply referred to as the Escher Museum.