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aurits Cornelis Escher, who was born in Leeuwarden, Holland in 1898, created unique and fascinating works of art that explore and exhibit a wide range of mathematical ideas.
While he was still in school his family planned for him to follow his father's career of architecture, but poor grades and an aptitude for drawing and design eventually led him to a career in the graphic arts. His work went almost unnoticed until the 1950’s, but by 1956 he had given his first important exhibition, was written up in Time magazine, and acquired a world-wide reputation. Among his greatest admirers were mathematicians, who recognized in his work an extraordinary visualization of mathematical principles. This was the more remarkable in that Escher had no formal mathematics training beyond secondary school.
As his work developed, he drew great inspiration from the mathematical ideas he read about, often working directly from structures in plane and projective geometry, and eventually capturing the essence of non-Euclidean geometries, as we will see below. He was also fascinated with paradox and "impossible" figures, and used an idea of Roger Penrose’s to develop many intriguing works of art. Thus, for the student of mathematics, Escher’s work encompasses two broad areas: the geometry of space, and what we may call the logic of space.
His interest began in 1936, when he traveled to Spain and viewed the tile patterns used in the Alhambra. He spent many days sketching these tilings, and later claimed that this “was the richest source of inspiration that I have ever tapped.” In 1957 he wrote an essay on tessellations, in which he remarked:
In mathematical quarters, the regular division of the plane has been considered theoreticallyWhether or not this is fair to the mathematicians, it is true that they had shown that of all the regular polygons, only the triangle, square, and hexagon can be used for a tessellation. (Many more irregular polygons tile the plane – in particular there are many tessellations using irregular pentagons.) Escher exploited these basic patterns in his tessellations, applying what geometers would call reflections, glide reflections, translations, and rotations to obtain a greater variety of patterns. He also elaborated these patterns by “distorting” the basic shapes to render them into animals, birds, and other figures. These distortions had to obey the three, four, or six-fold symmetry of the underlying pattern in order to preserve the tessellation. The effect can be both startling and beautiful.
. . .Does this mean that it is an exclusively mathematical question? In my opinion, it does not. [Mathematicians] have opened the gate leading to an extensive domain, but they have not entered this domain themselves. By their very nature thay are more interested in the way in which the gate is opened than in the garden lying behind it.
In Reptiles the tessellating creatures playfully escape from the prison of two dimensions and go snorting about the destop, only to collapse back into the pattern again. Escher used this reptile pattern in many hexagonal tessellations. In Development 1, it is possible to trace the developing distortions of the square tessellation that lead to the final pattern at the center.
There are many interesting solids that may be obtained from the Platonic solids by intersecting them or stellating them. To stellate a solid means to replace each of its faces with a pyramid, that is, with a pointed
At left, Escher's Order and Chaos. Here the stellated figure rests within a crystalline sphere, and the austere beauty of the construction contrasts with the disordered flotsam of other items resting on the table. Notice that the source of light for the composition may be guessed, for the bright window above and to the left of the viewer is reflected in the sphere.
Intersecting solids are also represented in many of Escher's works, one of the most interesting being the wood engraving Stars, at right.
Inspired by a drawing in a book by the mathematician H.S.M Coxeter, Escher created many beautiful representations of
Even more unusual is the space suggested by the woodcut Snakes. Here the space heads off to infinity both towards the rim and towards the center of the circle, as suggested by the shrinking, interlocking rings. If you occupied this sort of a space, what would it be like?
In addition to Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, Escher was very interested in visual aspects of Topology, a branch of mathematics just coming into full
Another very remarkable lithograph, called Print Gallery, explores both the logic and the topology of space. Here a young man in an art gallery is looking at a print of a seaside town with a shop along the docks, and in the shop is an art gallery, with a young man looking at a print of a seaside
All of Escher's works reward a prolonged stare, but this one does especially. Somehow, Escher has turned space back into itself, so that the young man is both inside the picture and outside of it simultaneously. The secret of its making can be rendered somewhat less obscure by examining the grid-paper sketch the artist made in preparation for this lithograph. Note how the scale of the grid grows continuously in a clockwise direction. And note especially what this trick entails: A hole in the middle. A mathematician would call this a singularity, a place where the fabric of the space no longer holds together. There is just no way to knit this bizarre space into a seamless whole, and Escher, rather than try to obscure it in some way, has put his trademark initials smack in the center of it.
Escher understood that the geometry of space determines its logic, and likewise the logic of space often determines its geometry. One of the features of the logic of space which he often applied is the play of light and shadow on concave and convex objects. In the lithograph Cube with Ribbons, the bumps on the bands are our visual clue to how they are intertwined with the cube. However, if we are to believe our eyes, then we cannot believe the ribbons!
By introducing unusual vanishing points and forcing elements of a composition to obey them, Escher was able to render scenes in which the “up/down” and “left/right” orientations of its elements shift, depending on how the viewer’s eye takes it in. In his perspective study for High and Low, the artist has placed five vanishing points: top left and right, bottom left and right, and center. The result is that in the bottom half of the composition the viewer is looking up, but in the top half he or she is looking down. To emphasize what he has accomplished, Escher has made the top and bottom halves depictions of the same composition.
A third type of “impossible drawing” relies on the brain's insistence upon using visual clues to construct a three-dimensional object from a two-dimensional representation, and Escher created many works which address this type of anomaly.
A central concept which Escher captured is that of self-reference, which many believe lies near the heart of the enigma of consciousness – and the brain's ability to process information in a way that no computer has yet mimicked successfully.
On a deeper level, self-reference is found in the way our worlds of perception reflect and intersect one another. We are each like a character in a book who is
And so we end where we began, with a self portrait: the work a reflection of the artist, the artist reflected in his work.