Spending Quality Time with M. C. Escher, Mathemagician

Over the winter, the National Gallery of Canada hosted a major exhibition of the work of M. C. Escher. It turns out that they have one of the largest collections of Escher’s work in the world, because Escher’s son George lived in Nova Scotia and gave a large number of prints to the museum. I was fortunate to go to Ottawa before the exhibit closed to spend some leisurely, up-close, and high-quality time with 54 of Escher’s prints.

There is an advantage to going to see an art show midweek during the day after it’s been open for a while: you will have the gallery pretty much to yourself, and can take as long as you like looking at each image. The disadvantage was that there wasn’t enough time for me to go back up to see the show a second time. This show would have been well worth a second viewing.

Escher began his career as a landscape artist working in Italy. I didn’t know this, and I was stunned by the images he created during this period. Here is Bonifacio, Corsica, a woodblock print created in October 1928. I keep looking at the change in the water, from bottom to top. Bottom and top are negative images of each other, integrated seamlessly into a whole.

This print also is a fine example of his virtuosic technique, which dazzled me over and over and over again. His woodblocks especially were exquisite. There was one original block on display, with a hole drilled into it so that it could never be printed again. It was an objet d’arte as lovely and as amazing as any print hanging on the walls.

In addition to being a monster at creating an intricate woodblock, Escher was adept at physically pulling the prints from their original media. He did not routinely use the expert print shops that have long been available to take care of the technical task of moving the image from medium to paper for the artist. Many of his pieces had the word “eigendruck” written on them in pencil in the margin - his proud notation that he was the craftsperson who physically made the print.

Escher’s fascination with geometry, space, and perspective started early. This piece, Covered Alley in Atrani, Coast of Amalfi, created in November 1931, fascinated me. Oh, there are the stairs. And that rich, rich black. It was that black in reality, too. Seeing this one piece was worth the price of admission to me.

Woodblock printing is not a logical technique to use to depict night scenes. Therefore in 1934 Escher made a series of prints of  nocturnal Rome. This one is titled Nocturnal Rome: Trajan’s Column. It was very hard to pick just one for this blog post. Each of them is a study of light and shadow.

Escher was a master of lithography as well as of the woodblock print. This picture, Still-life with Mirror, was created in 1934, and it is messing with our heads, as he so loved to do. Could you really see that street scene in that mirror?

There were tessellations galore. This is a famous woodblock print, Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell), created in July 1960.

There were also many examples of his fantastic geometries, Escher’s famous buildings that could never be built. A lovely example is the lithographWaterfall, created in October 1961. I see echoes of his Italian landscapes, and I love the garden at the bottom.

The final print I saw was this woodblock print, Three Spheres I, created in September 1945. I almost could not tear myself away from it. The vision and the technical perfection overwhelmed me. Not a single irregularity or misplaced stroke of the knife any where. I have seen human-created perfection on this earth, close enough to touch it (though I didn't).

I am so very grateful to my friend Judy for taking me to Ottawa to see this show, and for sharing good food and conversation with me. Judy and I have had a couple of marvelous adventures together where we have spent the day immersed in our love of the beautiful, including gravity balanced stone sculptures in the Rideau River, amazing minerals from the earth, and works of art.

I am also grateful to the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa for making the images of their collection available online. All of these images and much more can be found at http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist_work.php?page=1&iartistid=1655&withimages=N.


  1. I have always loved Escher ever since I discovered him as a teen. One of my friends finds him cold, and it might be precisely because of that mathematical precision with which everything is executed. I have to disagree with her, as I see a lot of warmth and passion in his work, as well as whimsy, alongside the technical excellence. I’m so glad you got to see that show. I wish I could have done so, as well.


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