The Impossible World of M.C. Escher

Sep 18, 2014

M.C. Escher, Waterfall, 1961, lithograph
Credit © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company- The Netherlands. All rights reserved. /

We spoke to the Currier Museum of Art's Senior Educator, Jane Oneail about the M.C. Escher retrospective that opens September 20th on the show today and in the process of prepping for that interview we discovered a few things about M.C. Escher that you might not know.

For years, people have imagined that Escher must have come from another time, a real-life Doctor Who traveling through space and time, seeing the edge of the universe and extraterrestrial worlds where the laws of gravity and physics don't apply. We found no evidence that Escher was indeed a time traveler, but one thing's for sure, there's more to Escher than just optical illusions.

Despite his prowess with mathematical concepts, Escher had no formal training in math or science.

Even without that formal training, Escher was able to do what most mathematicians and scientists found to be impossible: illustrate complex concepts in such a way that even the non-mathematically inclined could appreciate their beauty. He was famous for his tessellations, or interlocking patterns, which were inspired by a trip to Alhambra, a 14th century Moorish castle in Granada, Spain.

Digitally enhanced photograph of a wall tiling at the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain, illustrating wallpaper group "p3".
Credit via Wikimedia Commons

Escher expanded on this concept by stretching his tessellations over a circle, illustrating the concept of hyperbolic geometry on a two-dimensional sphere. Even without formal training, Escher was able to perfectly illustrate what cosmologists often struggle to explain: in the two dimensional world there is a third geometry. Confused? So were we, here's a link to a more in-depth explanation.

M.C. Escher was inspired by the renowned physicists Roger Penrose, but did you know that Penrose was equally inspired by Escher?

In an interview with Discover magazine in 2009, Roger Penrose mentioned that one of his friends showed him an illustration by Escher on the cover of an exhibition catalog. Penrose was intrigued and his friend encouraged him to go and see Escher's work in person.

So I went and was very taken by these very weird and wonderful things that I’d never seen anything like. I decided to try and draw some impossible scenes myself and came up with this thing that’s referred to as a tri-bar. It’s a triangle that looks like a three-dimensional object, but actually it’s impossible for it to be three-dimensional. I showed it to my father and he worked out some impossible buildings and things. Then we published an article in the British Journal of Psychology on this stuff and acknowledged Escher. [Source]

Escher then saw Penrose's article and used the 'tri-bar' he mentions above in his lithograph Waterfall.

M.C. Escher Was Not a Fan of The Rolling Stones

But Mick Jagger sure liked Escher. He even wrote a letter to him asking for permission to use one of his mind bending images for an album cover. Mick's first mistake? Probably addressing the letter to Maurits. Mental Floss has an alleged transcript of both letters and this parting line from the master draftsman illustrates his dedication to formalities:

By the way, please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him, but
Very sincerely,
M. C. Escher.

That's M.C. to you, Mick.

This is what they decided to do as an album cover after Escher declined to give them permission to use his artwork.

M.C. Escher did give permission for Mott the Hoople to use a reproduction of one of his illustrations, Reptiles, for their 1969 album cover.

M.C. Escher, Reptiles, 1943, lithograph
Credit © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company- The Netherlands. All rights reserved. /

Escher's work has inspired many, but you've no doubt seen his influence come to life in the hands of  film makers.

Here are a few clips that pay homage to the master draftsman and impossible thinker, specifically to his famous lithograph, Relativity.

M.C. Escher, Relativity,1953, lithograph
Credit © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company- The Netherlands. All rights reserved. /

The Penrose Steps scene from Inception

The Making of the Penrose Steps from the movie Inception.

The scene from Labyrinth that features a set inspired by M.C. Escher

Here's a behind the scenes narrated by Jim Henson.