5 Facts About M.C. Escher That Will Bend Your Mind

M.C. Escher is well known for his surreal, reality-warping engravings — two hands drawing each other, infinite staircases, fish changing into birds and back again. Never an art-world celebrity, he was nonetheless beloved by everyone from counterculture youth to mystics and scientists.

As a result, his work has inspired plenty of crazy ideas about alternative realities, mysticism, and mental emancipation. And he’s been a great and humble sport about them all. Once, when a woman called him, saying, “Mr. Escher, I am absolutely crazy about your work. In your print ‘Reptiles’ you have given such a striking illustration of reincarnation,” he responded simply: “Madam, if that’s the way you see it, so be it.”

He eventually elaborated: “In my prints, I try to show that we live in a beautiful and orderly world and not in a chaos without norms, as we sometimes seem to.”

To commemorate Escher’s birthday on Wednesday, and decades of Escher mythologizing, we offer you five mind-bending factoids on his life, influences, and legacy — that are actually true. Behold:

1. He was not a mathematician — in fact, he wasn’t even a good math student.

Contrary to popular belief, Escher had little background in or talent for math. In fact, he had poor grades, failed his high school exams, and dropped out of architecture school to study decorative arts.

That all changed 15 years later when he read a paper by George Pólya on “plane symmetry groups,” repetitive patterns on two-dimensional surfaces. The paper inspired his work for decades to come, though Escher admits he understood little of the mathematical theory behind it.

As his interest in geometries developed, Escher would study typology, work with H.S.M. Coxeter on tessellations, and form a lasting collaboration with Roger Penrose —> Read More