Learn Penrose was inspired by Escher’s early

Learn about the life and work of Dutch graphic illustrator M. C. Escher. Explore his designs for impossible architecture, infinity loops, and optical illusions.

Impossible Architecture

From the Goblin King’s impossible palace in Labyrinth (1986) to the Penrose stairs in Inception (2010), the imagination of M. C. Escher has had a palpable influence on American popular culture.

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Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), a Dutch graphic artist, is widely known for imagining impossible staircases and waterfalls that defy gravity.

Penrose Stairs
penrose stairs

Escher’s illustrations have an immediate impact of intrigue.

Taking a closer look reveals his sophisticated grasp of spatial relations and mastery of depth perception. Escher’s drawings play upon the two-dimensionality of the illustration while suggesting a third, illogical dimension. Such a style is a trademark of optical illusions such as the Penrose triangle.

Defying Gravity

While gravity-defying architecture is possible to pull off on paper and in the movies, it’s only a fantasy in real life. That’s because these images rely on a meticulously crafted positioning of the spectator in relation to the image. You would be forgiven for thinking that the artist who came up with these designs had an advanced background in mathematics or architecture.

However, M.C. Escher had none of these things.Born and raised in Leeuwarden in the northern region of the Netherlands, Escher had little interest in school.

However, he was excelled at drawing and carpentry from an early age. An education at the school for architecture and decorative arts fueled his enduring passion for the graphic arts. Between 1912 and 1922, Escher studied the decorative arts at a school in Haarlem in north Holland, learning the art of the woodcut as well as lithography. While Escher specialized in graphic illustration, his work was mostly produced in these other media.Escher originally enrolled at Haarlem as a student of architecture, most likely urged on by his father, who was a civil engineer.

But at school his teachers encouraged him to pursue his passions, which resulted in a change of major to the graphic arts. Escher’s masterful command of spatial relationships combined with a wild imagination.A trip to Italy and Spain in 1922 likely inspired Escher’s later work. One can speculate what influence Gaudi’s Barcelona architecture, the Milanese Gothic cathedrals, or the Roman Renaissance arches must have had on Escher’s visual imagination. His trips to mediterranean in 1936 influenced the rich patterns that would subsequently ornament his work. Escher’s iconic pieces were produced in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

Waterfall, inspired by Escher

C. Escher, Impossible Cube

escher cube

The complexity and sophistication of mathematics and geometry in his work increased throughout his lifetime. But the 1940s he came to be regarded as a research mathematician for the level of sophistication in his work, and the insights it offered to academia. For example, British mathematician Roger Penrose was inspired by Escher’s early work in the design of his triangle. In an ironic turn, Escher and Penrose continued to inspire each other’s work to such a degree that it’s impossible to tell where the ideas originated. The Penrose stairs (1958) and Escher’s ‘Ascending Descending’ (1960) provide further examples of impossible architecture, representing the infinity loop of inspiration and genius.

Impossible triangle sculpture, East Perth, Western Australia
penrose triangle

Lesson Summary

Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher studied decorative arts and architecture in north Holland. While he had little interest in school, his teachers encouraged his passion for illustration, resulting in his decision to major in the graphic arts. Travel to Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean during and after college inspired his use of rich textures and patterns. Despite a lack of formal education in mathematics, the sophistication of geometry and spatial relations in Escher’s illustrations present his mastery of spatial intelligence, a form of intelligence distinct from learned skills or problem solving.

Escher acquired a reputation as a research mathematician and by the 1940s was corresponding with scholars such as Roger Penrose on the design for impossible architectures and infinity loops.


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