M.C. Escher: In His Mind's Eye

NGC logo

M.C. Escher, Sky and Water I (June 1938), woodcut on laid japan paper, 43.8 x 43.8 cm. NGC. M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water I” © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company – The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC

“Lord have mercy, I have to exhibit again, this time in Utrecht, in the salons of ‘Kunstliefde’. . .  Fortunately, I have made some progress and can see, in my mind’s eye, little men who keep climbing without ever reaching higher and other little men who keep descending without going lower.” (M.C. Escher, letter to Corrie and George Escher, January 10, 1960.)

M.C. Escher’s Ascending and Descending (1960), which takes a bird’s-eye view of a medieval villa with an impossible rooftop staircase, is one of his most famous and widely reproduced works of art. It appears on jigsaw puzzles, T-shirts, and on many a dorm room wall. Prepare to be mesmerized, though, when you see the original, hand-pulled lithograph in the National Gallery’s exhibition M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician.

Co-organized by the Art Gallery of Alberta, where it appeared in 2010, the exhibition presents 54 works by the Dutch artist, including many of his best-known — among them, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), Sky and Water I (1938), Relativity (1953), Belvedere (1958) and Waterfall (1961). Also included are some earlier and lesser-known works, such as Eight Heads (1922) and Castrovalva, Abruzzi (1930), which illustrate the artist’s creative evolution.

The National Gallery has one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Escher’s prints and archival materials, thanks to a generous donation from his son George, who immigrated to Canada in 1958 and now lives outside Ottawa. With such rich holdings, the Gallery has been able to explore Escher’s work in great depth over the years. Since 1983, it has presented four Escher exhibitions, created an online showcase called “M.C. Escher Mindscapes,” which includes video footage of the artist, and published correspondence between father and son in a wonderful book, M.C. Escher: Letters to Canada, 1958–1972.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (January 1935), lithograph on silver‑coated wove paper, 31.8 x 21.4 cm. Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1989. NGC. M.C. Escher’s “Hand with Reflecting Sphere”. © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company – The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC

An Escher exhibition is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser; art lovers, aging hippies, math geeks, musicians and kids alike are fascinated by his visual puzzles. Equally impressive, however, is the artist’s technical prowess. The Gallery’s Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Sonia Del Re, told NGC Magazine, “People remember Escher for his images, but he was a truly talented printmaker. He worked in a variety of printmaking processes, and was an extremely detailed and fine printer. He cared about the quality of each impression.”

The artist’s preferred paper, according to Del Re, was Japan paper, which has a soft texture and colour. “The contrast between the printer’s ink, which is very rich, and the delicate, cream-coloured Japan paper, is really wonderful.”

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in 1898 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, the son of a civil engineer and his wealthy wife. He studied graphic arts at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where he took a particular interest in woodcuts. The first work in the exhibition dates, in fact, from these student days. Eight Heads is a rare woodcut depicting eight interlocking men’s and women’s heads, repeated six times across the plane. This was the artist’s first experiment with the rhythmic repetition of forms, and positive and negative space. However, he did not immediately repeat the experiment.

After graduating in 1922, Escher traveled with friends to southern Italy. There, he fell under the spell of the dramatic landscape, with its steep hillside towns and somewhat rustic medieval architecture. By 1924, he had married and settled in Rome, and for the next decade, created drawings, woodcuts, wood engravings and lithographs that depicted the southern Italian countryside in a largely realistic style. “He was so fascinated by this landscape,” says Del Re, “even by the rocks and small insects, that he devoted his entire Italian production to it.”

The first room of the exhibition displays these early Italian scenes, such as the dark and mysterious Castrovalva, Abruzzi — a lithograph showing a town perched improbably on a precipitous slope. Castle in the Air (1928), in which a mountain peak breaks off and floats up to the sky, hints at a growing interest in the surreal.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

M.C. Escher, Castrovalva, Abruzzi (February 1930), lithograph on beige wove paper, 53.1 x 42.3 cm. Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1986. NGC. M.C. Escher’s “Castrovalva, Abruzzi” © 2014 The. M.C. Escher Company – The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com. Photo © NGC


Indeed, a straight line can be drawn from these to the artist’s mature works, as Del Re says: “Everything in Escher’s later work ⎯ when you think of impossible architectures and stairways leading to nowhere ⎯ is deeply rooted in his Italian experience, because he went on these very long trips where he explored villages atop mountains, and places that were difficult to reach, stairways that didn’t lead to any door.”

In 1935, Fascism was on the rise in Italy, and Escher moved his family ⎯ now with two small boys ⎯ to Switzerland, settling in Château d’Oex. The countryside left him indifferent, however, and it took a trip to Spain the following year to reignite his inspiration.

Escher had already seen the Moorish tile work of La Mezquita mosque and the Alhambra in 1922. On his second trip to Spain in 1936, accompanied by his wife Jetta, he spent several days copying the decorations, with their geometric forms. Upon his return to Switzerland, he began experimenting once again with repeated patterns of interlocking shapes, including birds, fish and other animals. He also began searching for mathematical solutions to visual problems.

George Escher recalls the period as two years of intense study. “These were his mathematical years,” he said on the phone from his home in Stittsville, Ontario. “He did the equivalent of a PhD in mathematics, but he didn’t read or speak the language of mathematics; it was purely visual.”

By 1937, the family had moved north, first to Belgium and later back to the Netherlands. There, Escher continued his investigations of the divided plane, imagined architecture, and optical illusion, until his death in 1972.

The exhibition gives free rein to these incredible imagined spaces, such as Still Life and Street (1937), in which a tabletop becomes a road, and Tetrahedral Planetoid (1954), where he creates a four-sided planet.

“He had a very open mind and a very keen eye,” recalled George Escher. “He looked around and observed things that other people didn’t observe.”


M.C. Escher: The Mathemagician is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until May 3, 2015.

About the Author