The Optics of Illusion

Serenade In Siena, 1923, Woodcut

“For me it remains an open question whether the play of white and black figures […] pertains to the realm of mathematics or to that of art.” So proclaimed Maurits Cornelis Escher when considering his enigmatic and visually topsy-turvy works which remain popular viewing not only for art aficionados but for scientists and mathematicians as well.

An early woodcut illustration from 1921, created for “Flor De Pascua” (Easter Flowers), a book of poems written by Escher’s friend Aad Van Stolk. While he was only 23, the woodcuts used in this book are considered a milestone in his career.

With great wit, keen intelligence and boundless imagination, Escher created a singular world unlike any other artist and his prolific body of work continues to mesmerize and inspire people in a variety of industries from fashion to advertising.

This singular world is currently displayed in a comprehensive exhibition at Industry City in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn titled. Escher: The Exhibition and Experience. Lovingly organized, in date order, the rooms also provide fantastic interactive opportunities for living in the work while gaining a deeper understanding of the various concepts he employed: infinity, reflection, symmetry, geometry and most importantly, tessellation.

Ant, 1943, Lithograph

Mummified Frog, 1946, Mezzotint

Beginning as a Dutch graphic artist, Escher found inspiration in the natural world, making studies of insects, landscapes and plants. Trips (and eventual moves) around Europe provided further insight, eventually leading him to create woodcuts, lithographs and mezzotints depicting these themes.

Old Olive Tree, 1934, Block

Old Olive Tree, 1934, Wood Engraving

It was around this time also that he began observing and studying architecture and decorative detail. He became interested in the mathematics of tessellation: geometric decoration in which triangles, stars or squares are repeated like tiles to cover a plane without leaving any gaps. This concept would eventually form the core of his work throughout the remainder of his life and be featured in his most ambitious and famous pieces. Growing in sophistication and complexity, the level of skill shows an artist in full command of his talents and ideas.

An example of tessellation. Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell), 1960, Woodcut

Whirlpools, 1957, Wood Engraving

Intarsia Door Cabinet, 1954, Wood

Day And Night, 1938, Woodcut, Printed From Two Blocks

Castrovalva (Abruzzi), 1930, Lithograph

Contemplating the sphere.

Hand With Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portrait In Spherical Mirror), 1935, Lithograph

Just one of the fun interactive features of the exhibition!

Playing with infinity. Mobius Strip I, 1961, Wood Engraving, Printed From Four Blocks

Three Worlds, 1955, Lithograph

Three Spheres, 1945, Wood Engraving

The eye sees all. Eye, 1946, Mezzotint

An amusing advertisement for furniture assembly service.

Escher’s fame and influence continued in contemporary popular culture through magazine articles, various special commissions, recognition from the scientific community and record album covers. He endures today in modern advertising for such companies as Ikea and Audi.

With a penchant for whimsy and cleverness, respect for the natural world, a fantastical imagination and precision skill, Escher’s art appeals to everyone as it engages the mind and tickles the eye.

Sometimes upside down is actually right side up!

Escher: The Exhibition and Experience runs through March 3.

How can this be?