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M.C. Escher

Explore connections in mathematics and art with this article on M.C. Escher.
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M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher was a Dutch artist famous for his intriguing manipulations of symmetrical patterns and perspective. He was born in 1898 in the Netherlands, and showed an early talent for drawing. Upon completing his secondary education, Escher attended the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, but at the age of 21 gave up architecture to pursue studies in graphic art.

In 1921, Escher moved to Italy, where he lived and traveled until 1935. During his time in Italy, he worked on landscapes with impossible perspectives, and in 1922 created Eight Heads, his first work dealing with the division of the plane. Escher married in 1924, and in 1935 moved to Switzerland. In 1936 he visited a mosque in Cordoba, Spain, and the Moorish tilings he saw there had a profound effect on his study of symmetry and tessellation. (Tessellations are patterns using arrangements of repeating shapes that fit perfectly together without gaps or overlaps.) He later developed a mathematical approach to create tessellations, and even used his own system of notation.

Escher and his wife returned to the Netherlands in 1941, and during the 1950's, his work garnered scientific as well as artistic attention. In 1958, he published Regular Division of the Plane. In 1959, he met Caroline H. MacGillavry, a professor of crystallography at Amsterdam University. Crystallography is a branch of science studying repeating patterns in nature, and Escher's work with symmetrical patterns and tessellations was extraordinarily relevant to this science. In 1960 he gave an exhibition and lectures on his work in conjunction with the Congress of the International Union of Crystallography in Cambridge, England.

In 1960, Escher met Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician engrossed by the study of tessellation and quasi-symmetry. Their influence on each other was profound. That same year, Escher created the famous work, Ascending and Descending, which depicts a staircase that goes both up and down in a square, but never really changes levels. The precision and detail of his drawings make the impossible subjects he portrays all the more mind-boggling.

In reference to his work Escher said, "It is...a pleasure to deliberately mix together objects of two and three dimensions, surface and spatial relationships, and to make fun of gravity."