It is not immediately obvious, even by his own biographical account, that Escher would go onto create the images he is beloved by. A young man traveling throughout Italy, searching for scenes, distilling their feeling — discovering the hollowness which attends every artist who realizes that what they feel is battered, distorted and ruined, even insulted, by its journey onto the page. When Escher graduated from the Haarlem school of Architecture and Decorative Arts, there was no doubt that he was a talented graphic artist, but, as in the words of his teacher, he “lacked the right artistic temperament; his work is too cerebral, neither emotional nor lyrical enough.” Leaving his home in the north, melancholic with the jarring fact of unrequited love, Escher set off to Italy and gorged on its imagery: the narrow, cobbled streets, roof-top views; all revealing and condensing into a warmer palette, a new concentration.
He hiked long across the undulating hills, studying the flora, finding the unkept villages he passed through a joy. One night, walking back to his room in Siena, the moonlight caught on a row of trees and feeling the tide of ambition which beauty must invoke in an artist, he set out to sketch. The work being done, Escher found that the feeling had been left by the way-side. Fretting, he wrote to a friend telling of this inability to transcribe the feeling into this line of trees; the chance beauty of nature spoke a transitory tale and skipped off without a trace.
Italy would never leave Escher. The buildings and stately columns that recur in his later prints serve as a foundation for what he would later find in Spain: the intricate tessellations in Alhambra which first pointed him in the direction which would characterize so much of his later work; the mathematical games with which Escher would captivate the world. It was on his second trip that Escher painstakingly copied out the tiles of the Moors in Alhambra, and he did so with frenetic energy. It was, perhaps, an intuitive following. Escher had previously played with perspective; he veered naturally onto the formal aspects of his craft, but nothing that telling which would have caused such an obsession with this two-dimensional form. The gesture of the tiles, this consummate form, no spaces left untouched, unnoticed, complete, seems a delicate and worthy antithesis to the artist’s anxiety over the failure to transcribe feeling.
The tiles prompted a special kind of fusion in Escher. Between the two worlds of romantic wonder and determined mathematics, he was able to form a unique visual language. After the second Spanish study trip, Escher began to work consistently more from imagination than from the natural world of his younger years, especially after moving away from Italy in the wake of rise of fascism. The journey inwards led to the play of ideas. It was here that Escher “discovered that technical mastery was no longer my sole aim, for I became gripped by another desire […] ideas came into my mind quite unrelated to graphic art, notions which so fascinated me that I longed to communicate them to other people.” It was through the realm of mathematic curiosity that Escher could make these ideas come to the page, that, and of course, his training as a graphic designer.
His images became conceptual, abstract, but he paired them with markings of fantasy and nature. Commenting in his “The regular division of a plane” on the Moorish tiles at Alhambra, he notes: “What a pity it is that Islam did not permit them to make ‘graven images’. They always restricted themselves to designs of an abstract geometrical type. Not one single Moorish artist, to the best of my knowledge, ever made so bold as to use concrete, recognizable, naturistically conceived figures.” It was through incorporating naturalistic figures that Escher made his images, not only interactive, but characterise his conceptions. When his ideas were beginning to take shape, he had to juxtapose them with something of the ordinary. A great, and perhaps the clearest, example of this need for juxtaposition is in the print called Order and Chaos. The geometrical composition of order takes the center while being surrounded by images of chaos, which in this case are chance dissolutions of objects that were once orderly. The co-existence of the two bring both into sharp relief; or, take as another example, his print Moebius band II, where ants crawl along the surface of the band, marking the unusual concept of one single surface where clock-wise and anti-clockwise motion are indistinguishable.
Escher’s fascination with space and its inherent capacity for complexity and illusion subsumed his later years, and he found in the structures of mathematic formula a method. The distorted games we see in works such as Print Gallery and Balcony do in fact follow a scheme; Print Gallery was worked out by a Dutch mathematician as a sort of puzzle (there was a seminar on Escher held at Oxford university, titled “M.C. Escher — Artist, Mathematician, Man,” where professor Jon Chapman expounds on Escher’s use of the Droste Effect, and the mathematical rules, functioning in Print Gallery). This fact of Escher is quite singular, and the relationship between mathematics and idea were certainly not one-sided but complex; the searching for mathematical forms to generate ideas versus using mathematics to engender his ideas; he was generally receptive once the mathematical community reached out: after exchanging letters with the renowned mathematician Roger Penrose, and discovering from him the “Penrose Triangle,” the impossible triangle, Escher created his famous print, Waterfall; the image displays three Penrose triangles to create the effect of perpetual motion. Escher had the capability of turning mathematical abstractions into something tangible, even if impossible in nature, and this “lie” is not less telling than non-fiction: it is linked to something very close to the heart: wonder, anxiety, and the limits of experience.
Escher’s existentialist unease is subtle; it does not excite the same response as the well-known expressionist paintings of, say, a Munch, but it is there, and he had enough sympathy to express it, on occasion, in a comical guise. In the print Cycle, the viewer can see a jolly figure descending the stairs to merge into a shape which will metamorphosize into, eventually, a cube. The human figure runs seemingly blindly into 2-D geometry; it is determined as though there is nowhere else to go. The metaphor is amusing and unsettling. The same feeling is evoked in the print Ascending and Descending, only here the comic side is blunted. The hooded, anonymous figures meaninglessly go up and down but never move, never get anywhere. One figure gazes from below, another sits alone on the staircase entrance; there is nowhere else to go: join the pageantry or combat solitude. It is an image of absurdity. The viewer looks down on the human scene and knows the feeling all too well.
Escher once said: “The flat shape irritates me — I feel like telling my objects, you are too fictitious, lying there next to each other static and frozen: do something, come off the paper and show me what you are capable of!” This insistence to play with objects in space was remarkably rewarding. There are few artistic antecedents for what Escher accomplished; there are strains of his ideas floating around the movements of Modernism, but not the coherency of effect that we find in Escher. His endless curiosity, and, especially towards the end of his life, his interest in the infinite points to a romanticism that never left him, but was all the more congealed by his further studies. His was an interrogation of the 2-D form that remained highly aware of the 3-D illusionism, but more importantly, his work shows a wonder at space and the objects that fill our lives; he distorts, condenses and coheres, metamorphosizes perspective, shape and object, not so much for a game but to enliven the capacity of an object, to re-kindle an interest in the spaces we are forced to inhabit.