Reflections on the life of M. C. Escher

Hello everyone.  It’s been several weeks now since I’ve last blogged.  As some of you know, I’ve spent the past several weeks in The Hague helping out with a troubled project here, and the needs of this project have required my entire focus.  I’ve had to temporarily set aside my day job to focus on this project full time, and while I have still been able to meet the basic needs of CSC preparation and take a little bit of time to work with our team on some preliminary research, there has been very little mindshare for some of the more extended research that I had been blogging about earlier.

There is, in fact, a lot to write about, and I hope to be able spend some time this weekend telling you all about the clients we have been assigned, our initial discussions with them, and the work we’ve been asked to perform in our very short four week engagement.  But today, I am in The Hague, and I am going to write about one of its most famous artists: M. C. Escher.

Like many children who went on to become technologists or academics, Escher’s prints and drawings have captivated and delighted me from a very young age.  I can easily remember sitting for hours just staring at such masterpieces as Relativity, Belvedere, and Drawing Hands.  The Hague is the capital of the Netherlands, home to many monuments both modern and historic, and a delightful city in its own right, yet the one thing I knew I wanted to do during my time here was visit the Escher Museum.  But the museum is only open between 11:00 and 17:00 each day, and with as busy as the project has been, it was looking unlikely that I would get the chance.  Today, however, a critical planning meeting had to be postponed until 23:00, leaving me at leisure for the late afternoon and early evening – my chance had arrived and I was certainly not going to let such an opportunity go to waste.  So I packed up my gear, walked a mile or so into the center of town and went in to pay my respects.

Quite a lot has been written about Escher’s art, and about the mathematical and architectural principles embodied in his work (for those of you with any interest I would recommend the excellent Godel, Escher, Bach as one fine exemplar).  I have read a fair bit of such writings, and did not go in expecting to learn a great deal more along these lines.  What I knew far less about was Escher the man, or anything about his life.  And as I sit enjoying a cool autumn evening in a nearby outdoor café, this is what I want to share with you.

In many ways, the story of Escher’s childhood reads like an archetype of the sort of crucible in which great artists are formed.  He grew up the fifth and youngest of five brothers, born to a patriarchal, domineering, and pragmatic father who has selected a career for each of his older siblings based on his own observation of their talents as children.  Escher’s talent for drawing is visible to everyone from a very early age, but his father certainly does not see artist as a stable, respectable, or reliable career choice, so he decides that his youngest son will become an architect.  But this is where the story breaks the mold.  Escher is not the archetypical angry young rebel; he is a charmer, a negotiator, and the many photographs of Escher and his family at the museum testify to a deep and abiding love between him and his entire family.

Yet, while young Maurits has no desire to go against the wishes of his father or be a disappointment to his family, this in no way lessens his determination to pursue his life’s desire of being an artist.  So what he does instead is select a university known for architectural excellence, but also possessed of an outstanding graphic arts program.  He enters the university as an architecture student, but in his first week there he arranges to meet with the head of the graphics art department,  a man named Samuel Jesserum de Mesquita who was very well known and respected, and shows Mesquita his art portfolio.

The professor is as delighted with Escher’s work as we all have become, and tells Escher that he really ought to consider switching his course of study to art.  A series of discussions ensue, the end result of which is that Escher talks the professor into paying his father a visit.  And it is during this visit that he finally wins his father’s agreement that the youngest Escher will become a graphic artist.

Other stories of Escher’s life, most notably how he went about courting his wife, paint a very similar picture: a portrait of a man who is respectful, impeccably polite, and yet quietly subversive and utterly determined to have his way.  And I found, while looking for the first time at the originals of some of my favorite pieces,  that understanding a little bit about Escher’s life brought an entirely new dimension of understanding, joy, and delight to my appreciation of his work.

That inscrutably shy-yet-knowing smile that adorns so many of Escher’s figures is the smile of a man who understands what you have told him, would not dream of arguing with you, much less going against your will, but who knows that regardless of what you may think at the time, his own vision will prevail. This way of approaching the world, respecting it yet at the same time subverting it to his will, shows through not only in Escher’s art and his relationships with people, but in his approach to the universe as a whole, as explained a delightful quote from the artist himself…

In my art I try to show that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in formless chaos [yet] I cannot resist fooling around with our established certainties.  It gives me great pleasure, for example, to deliberately mix up the second and third dimensions, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity.

In measuring myself against Escher as a man, I find that all too often I end up enamoured of the emotional satisfaction that comes from a successful confrontation. I quite admire Escher’s way of approaching the world.  I wish I were more like him.

Sources:  The images all came from the official Escher website: www.mcescher.com

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