Behind the illusion: M.C Escher and the illustration of the impossible


MC Escher

Maurits Cornelis Escher is known for depicting impossible constructions and for creating a world where the figurative and the abstract touch.

He was also known for his mathematical fixation and for the geometric and symmetrical shapes of his illustrations, which are a visual challenge.

What about a visually incredible tour with us today?

MC Escher, as Maurits Cornelis Escher came to be known, was born on June 17, 1898, in Leeuwarden, Holland. His father was an engineer, which perhaps explains the many depictions of buildings in the artist’s work.

Little “Mauk”, as he was known to friends and family, didn’t do very well at school. Even though he studied at a special school because he was a sick child, he never got high marks. Even so, he excelled in drawing classes.

MC Escher , Still Life with Spherical Mirror, 1934MC Escher , Still Life with Spherical Mirror, 1934

A little biography of MC Escher

In 1919, MC Escher entered the Faculty of Architecture, which was his parents’ wish, but in the same week he showed his work to graphic arts teacher Samuel de Mesquita, who advised him to change course and enroll in the Graphic Arts department. In this way, he talks to his parents, who, a little annoyed, accept Maurits’ wishes.

The journeys to Spain and Italy

From 1922 onwards, Escher began to travel around Italy and Spain. His travels provided him with numerous influences that would permeate his work from then on. It was also on one of his trips to Italy that he met Jetta Umiker, whom he married in 1924.

Photo of Maurits and Jetta's wedding in Viareggio, June 16, 1924Maurits and Jetta’s wedding in Viareggio, June 16, 1924


Photo of M.C Escher and his son George, December 29, 1926M.C Escher and his son George, December 29, 1926

MC Escher courtesy of George Escher for the National Gallery of Canada, 2013

Images available at Escher in Het Paleis

Photos: courtesy of George Escher for the National Gallery of Canada, 2013

In 1935, with the advance of fascism in Italy, Escher decided to move from Italy with his family to Switzerland, especially after his eldest son, George, was forced to wear the uniform of the Opera Nazionale Ballila at school. Two years after moving to Switzerland with his family, Escher spent a season in Belgium and then went to the Netherlands, where he lived until 1970.

Escher was obsessed with his work. This led to the end of his marriage.

“I really enjoyed being with him. But work came first. It certainly did. And that led Mom to leave him at the end of his life, because she just couldn’t always stay in second place”

George Escher, in an interview with the National Gallery of Canada in 2013

The works of MC Escher

He was framed in Surrealism and op art, as he was an expert in creating illusions through the volumes and shapes he included in his illustrations.

His references, however, were diverse.

For example, during his visit to Spain in the 1920s, he was enchanted by the Islamic mosaics and their geometric patterns, which he tried to incorporate into his own works.

MC Escher, Hand with reflecting sphere, 1935MC Escher, Hand with reflecting sphere, 1935

Hand with reflecting sphere (above) is a self-portrait.

Escher holds the sphere that reflects his face, immediately recognizable by the thick beard the artist wore. The way he holds the ball, as well as the position of the image, reminds me of the way we hold our cell phones to take ‘selfies’ nowadays.

More than a self-portrait, this photo is also a reflection (no pun intended), because as well as showing himself, as self-portraits usually do, the artist sees himself.

The exploration of visual possibilities

MC Escher Relativity, 1953MC Escher, Relativity, 1953


Escher’s work has a lot of the surrealism and expressionism that marked the first half of the 20th century.

In Relativity (above), Escher presents a world in which the Law of Gravity makes no sense.

In fact, a world in which apparently nothing makes sense. People float on the edges of the illustration, stairs are placed in impossible areas, doors appear almost out of nowhere.

It’s a chaotic deconstruction, a symbol of what Escher once said:

“We love chaos because we love to produce order.

And he produced this order within the very chaos of this drawing. In Up and Down (below) note: where are the stairs taking us? From / to where are these people going? Let your eyes enjoy (or not) this enigmatic work, an infinite descent and an infinite ascent. How can you not be enchanted by it?

MC Escher Up and Down,1960MC Escher, Up and Down,1960

In 1972, a few months before his 73rd birthday, Maurits Cornelis Escher died in Hilversum Hospital.

The artist already had health problems and had even undergone surgery a few years earlier. Since the beginning of his work in the 1920s, Escher’s artistic career only took a hiatus in 1962, precisely because of health problems. His work consists of hundreds of illustrations (without paintings) and is full of mysterious meanings and surrealist approaches.

MC Escher – Artist Lumberjack

According to George Escher, the artist’s son, his father had a hard time adjusting to the art world. According to him:

He wasn’t accepted by the art world because he didn’t consider himself an artist. He thought of himself as a lumberjack. But the fact is that he is the only one, I think, who did this kind of work: fitting together regular patterns and fantasies of distorted worlds with various gravities.

George Escher, in an interview with the National Gallery of Canada in 2013

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