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Art of the Week: June 19, 2011

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"Relativity" by Dutch artist MC Escher

Escher Relativity 2MC Escher (1898-1972). Born in Leeuwarden, Holland, the son of a civil engineer, Escher spent most of his childhood in Arnhem. Aspiring to be an architect, Escher enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. While studying there from 1919 to 1922, his emphasis shifted from architecture to drawing and printmaking upon the encouragement of his teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. In 1924 Escher married Jetta Umiker, and the couple settled in Rome to raise a family. They resided in Italy until 1935, when growing political turmoil forced them to move first to Switzerland, then to Belgium. In 1941, with World War II under way and German troops occupying Brussels, Escher returned to Holland and settled in Baarn, wEscher 2here he lived and worked until shortly before his death in 1972.
His artistic expression was created from images in his mind, rather than directly from observations and travels to other countries. Well known examples of his work also include Drawing Hands, a work in which two hands are shown, each drawing the other; Sky and Water, in which light plays on shadow to morph the water background behind fish figures into bird figures on a sky background; and Ascending and Descending, in which lines of people ascend and descend stairs in an infinite loop, on a construction which is impossible to build and possible to draw only by taking advantage of quirks of perception and perspective.
Although Escher did not have mathematical training—his understanding of mathematics was largely visual and intuitive—Escher's work had a strong mathematical component, and more than a few of the worlds which he drew are built around impossible objects such as the Necker cube and the Penrose triangle. Many of Escher's works employed repeated tilings called tessellations.
In the lithograph Relativity, printed in 1953, Escher depicts a world in which the normal laws of gravity do not apply. The architectural structure seems to be the centre of an idyllic community, with most of its inhabitants casually going about their ordinary business, such as dining. There are windows and doorways leading to park-like outdoor settings. The structure has six stairways, and each stairway can be used by people who belong to two different gravity sources. This creates interesting phenomena, such as in the top stairway, where two inhabitants use the same stairway in the same direction and on the same side, but each using a different face of each step; thus, one descends the stairway as the other climbs it, even while moving in the same direction nearly side-by-side.

This is one of Escher’s most popular works and has been used in a variety of ways, as it can be appreciated both artistically and scientifically. Interrogations about perspective and the representation of three-dimensional images in a two-dimensional picture are at the core of Escher's work, and Relativity represents one of his greatest achievements in this domain.