Maurits Cornelis Escher (1872-1989) was a truly original talent, and one of the most unusual artists. This versatile Dutchman, a celebrated illustrator, was a master printmaker, made famous for his mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints.

M.C. Escher, as he is better known, was fascinated with the notion of space and infinity, and many of his drawings have become iconic images, instantly recognizable almost anywhere in the world. Who is not familiar with his Hand with Reflecting Sphere? The title of this exhibition is beautifully inspired, for he was indeed a kind of mathemagician, creating worlds defying dimensions and gravity. His drawings were meticulously executed, his attention to detail an intrinsic part of his compositions. Fifty-four of M.C. Escher’s prints, selected from the Gallery’s extensive collection of his work, are on display and they include some of his most famous images like Relativity (1953), Belvedere (1958) and Waterfall (1961), with their impossible, maddeningly complicated architecture. One of his very rare woodcuts, Eight Heads (1922) is also part of this exhibition, as is his 1956 work Print Gallery, with its endlessly undulating corridors, and images mirrored into infinity.

M.C. Escher had no particular mathematical training, his understanding of math was largely intuitive and visual, and he was drawn to such obscure objects as the non-existent Penrose triangle and Penrose stairs, which appear in many of his compositions.

The artist’s use of illusion and collapsed space has fascinated not only art lovers but scientists and mathematicians. In 2012, a project was done at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, in which M.C. Escher’s works were explained in mathematical terms such as the “Droste effect”, a particular distortion of space. Using as an example The Print Gallery, the students working on the project, with the use of the latest in computer technology, demonstrated the artist’s impeccable understanding of the concept. What is more, and this made the news, they reproduced the work, by altering some of the lines and ‘completed’ it by filling the myste­rious blank patch in the centre of the print; like fractals, his compositions carried on into eternity, spiralling beyond what the eye could comprehend.

But lest we get boggled down in the fascinating realm of mathematics, it is important to note that M.C. Escher was first and foremost a skilled draughtsman, a master printmaker, a man of enormous imagination and dedication to his craft. Those in the know will look at Gravity and see a stellated dodecahedron, others will be tickled by the multicoloured turtles scrambling out of sharp edged geometric object, as if out of a common shell. That, indeed, is the magic of M.C. Escher, art wrapped in mathematics, offering endless interpretations, and what follows, endless fun.

Reams have been written about him and his unusual graphic talent, and he himself summarized his findings in a sketchbook, with an impossibly long title: Regelmatige vlakverdeling in asymmetrische congruente veelhoeken (“Regular division of the plane with asymmetric congruent polygons”). It seems that the inextricable influence of mathematical concepts in his art required an aid.

In July 1969 M.C. Escher finished his last work, a woodcut called Snakes. In it, snakes wind through a pattern of linked rings, which fade to infinity toward both the center and the edge of a circle. 

The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
December 20, 2014—May 3, 2015