How M.C. Escher Transfixed the World with His Mind-Bending Works

Natalie Lemle
Mar 21, 2018 8:26PM

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands. ©2017 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was fresh out of art school when he first visited the Alhambra in 1922. It was his first encounter with the elaborate, repeating patterns in the tiles and architecture of the lavish Granada palace. The visit would leave a lasting impression on the Dutch artist and his work, today defined by mind-bending yet orderly visions where hands draw themselves and birds transform seamlessly into fish.

Even after that fateful trip, Escher would continue to draw the real world (albeit from impossible vantage points) for the next 15 years, as he lived and traveled throughout southern Europe. He visited the Alhambra again in 1936, producing meticulous sketches of Islamic tiling that today appear almost as prototypes for his later tessellated work. Finally, in 1941, Escher brought his family home to the Netherlands and settled in Baarn. Bored by his new surroundings and forced inside by the damp, grey weather, his compositions shifted to reflect his inner world. Ideas from his travels crystallized, and his subjects were increasingly imagined.

The prints Escher produced from 1941 on are his most well-known. He continued experimenting with repeating patterns and geometric mathematical concepts, but he became increasingly interested in expressing three-dimensional subjects: optical illusions, metamorphosis, and impossible worlds. “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!” he later said.

M.C. Escher, Day and Night. ©2017 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands.


Drawing Hands (1948), two hands that appear to come alive and sketch each other, and Relativity (1953), an impossible set of staircases with multiple viewpoints, are two examples of the mesmerizing, almost universally appealing prints from this later body of work that have become so recognizable they are almost cliché.

“Why do we, institutionally, look down on an artist that is so popular?” asks Ronni Baer, senior painting curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who organized “M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” the institution’s current exhibition. “Probably because he is so popular.”

Baer is best known for her scholarship on Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Rubens. “Rembrandt was a magnificent etcher, and he used drypoint. But he really specialized in a certain kind of print,” she notes. “Escher mastered several different printmaking techniques. For me, that’s exceptional.”

M.C. Escher, Relativity. ©2017 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher, La Cathedrale Engloutie. ©2017 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved.

Indeed, Escher was a skilled printmaker, working in lithography, woodcut, linocut, and mezzotint. Today, his works are most often encountered as reproductions. The modern-day proliferation of Escher reprints stemmed from the artist’s own democratic approach to distribution. He never ran a closed print run, and he was liberal with image licensing. Dozens of bands featured Escher’s work on album covers, including Mott the Hoople (best known for “All the Young Dudes”), who put Reptiles (1943) on the cover of their 1969 eponymous album. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, his prints were a popular choice for science fiction and fantasy book covers—a trend that has extended into the 21st century, including a 2002 Italian translation of 1984 and the Penguin Classics editions of most of Jorge Luis Borges’s novels.

“You can appreciate his work without understanding him in the context of fine art—which is probably why we don’t realize how talented he actually was,” Baer says.

All four of Escher’s brothers were scientists; he was the only member of his family to pursue art professionally. Despite his assertion that he was never a good student, he had an innate ability to visually manifest mathematical concepts, which led to a widespread acceptance of his work in academic communities. “I was a pretty poor pupil at school,” he said in an interview. “And just imagine—mathematicians now use my prints to illustrate their books.”

The art world was slower to embrace Escher. “The question which continually comes up in regard to Escher’s work is whether his more recent efforts can come under the heading of art,” wrote critic G.H. ‘s-Gravesande in 1940. “He usually moves me deeply, yet I cannot possibly describe all his work as good.” Eventually, the tide turned. In 1951, British fine arts magazine The Studio published a positive review of Escher’s post-1937 work, praising him as a “remarkable and original artist.” His first retrospective was held in The Hague in 1968, when he was 70 years old.

Escher has since had several major museum exhibitions, and mathematicians and scientists remain fascinated with his work. “M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” integrates these eclectic admirers of the Dutch artist. Baer called on Erik Demaine, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to write the label for Escher’s 1957 color woodcut, Regular Division of the Plane I. She also incorporated in voices from the humanities, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and theater director Diane Paulus. “You don’t have to have a meaningful response to Escher being a fine artist to have a meaningful response to the image,” she explains.

The exhibition is a testament to the ways in which Escher’s fantastical works have mesmerized so many through the years. But Baer’s favorite work in the exhibition is uncharacteristically plausible. In Three Worlds (1955), a koi swims lazily through a pond scattered with leaves; trees are reflected on the water’s surface. “I’m not sure there’s anything impossible about it,” Baer says. “He’s showing us that this all exists at once, but we don’t perceive it. I think that’s magical.”

Natalie Lemle