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Randomly cleaning, I discovered an old college paper in which I discussed the philosophical meanings behind the artwork of M.C. Escher.  I'm both a huge fan of Escher, but also (surprisingly for an engineer) someone madly entranced by the concepts behind philosophy.

I noticed that plf515's excellent diary series on one of the books I cited was not being totally I figured there might be an audience who could appreciate a deeper look into the artist known for the never ending waterfall and impossible staircase.

Pardon the crappy writing, it was not only back in college...but going from Structural Engineering homework to Philosophy essays don't lend themselves to grand poetry.  I think I fixed some blatant grammatical errors, but a vast majority is just re-typed directly.  Enjoy.

[Update] - Wow...rec list?  Seriously?  Thanks so much!!!

[Update #2] Well, unfortunately I can't play anymore tonight.  But I just wanted to say thanks one last time to everyone for getting me on the rec list for the first time! G*night.

Escher: The Artwork of Epistemology

    Maurits Cornelis Escher, more commonly known as M.C. Escher, became popular by way of his steady hand in depicting artworks of impossibility.  Reproductions of his work line a set of walls which range from high-class art galleries to the average college dorm room.  While Escher's depictions of hands drawing hands and never ending staircases have tickled the imagination of millions, few take the time to explore the deeper meanings involved in his artwork.  Such meanings are rooted in the same ideals and questions posed by philosophers from Plato and Socrates to the students in this very class.  Epistemology is the study of how the mind gathers knowledge (Christian 169) and within this paper I intend to demonstrate how Escher's work reveals him to be an Epistemologist at heart, speaking through the abstract of his artwork.  With hundreds of pieces in Escher's collection, I intend to focus on but a few of the most explicit examples - starting first with some broader examples of philosophical undertones then zeroing in his focus of epistemology.

 title=     Douglas Hofstadter wrote this observation in his Pulizter Prize winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid [ed. note: More Info], "...But there is much more to a typical Escher drawing that just symmetry or pattern; there is often an underlying idea, realized in artistic form." (Hofstadter 11).  These underlying ideas become clear when you begin to look at Escher's work through a philosophical lens.  One of the most prominent subjects in philosophy is death.  "To Philosophize," wrote Montaigne "is to learn to die." (Christian 600).  This theme is displayed perfectly in one of Escher's most famous works, Eye.  In an extreme close-up of a human eye we see that the inescapably of death tints everything we perceive, that our reality is defined by our mortality.  This simply, yet powerful concept is present in many philosophers through history, and now includes Escher as well.

    Another prominent theme within philosophy is the search for the meaning of life.  This issue was tackled in another lithograph, entitled "Ascending and Descending", and is probably the most well known artwork M.C. Escher ever produced.  However, his personal thoughts and feelings behind the artwork are virtually unknown.  In a caption written by Escher himself, he describes the undertones of his work:

 title=That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound...Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about ten inches high, terribly tiring - and where does it get us?  Nowhere; we don't get a step farther or higher.  And descending, running down with abandon, is not an option either.  People don't like to talk about falling; they'd much rather talk about ascending.  Well then...I'm working my fingers to the bone, believing I'm ascending.  How absurd it all is.  Sometimes it makes me feel quite sick. (Geis 22)

    One only has to read that quote to fully understand the depth involved in creating the image.  This introspective on the meaning of both life and death points directly at Escher's philosophical nature, particularly in his artwork.  The next two pieces I will look at leads the philosophical leanings towards the study of epistemology in particular.  A common subject matter for epistemologists is the concept of what we perceive as reality and what is truly "real", arguing there are actually separate levels of reality in which we exist.  Be it moving out of the cave, as Plato suggested, or seperating out the Real all together, referred to as noumenon by Kant, they all make the distinction between the world we perceive to exist in versus true reality.

 title= title=

    "Three Worlds" (left) and "Three Spheres II" (right) are fantastic examples of the debate between what we perceive and what truly exists.  The multiple levels of reality within the scene in "Three Worlds" first begins with the pond itself, inhabited by the fish.  This fish lives it's entire world underwater, completely shut off to other existences by the ponds surface - the second level of reality.  The reflection (and only a reflection) of a third living reality reveals a group of trees, a world that the fish could never know, but one which still exists.  "Three Spheres II" actually more directly parallels the works of Plato.  The three spheres within this work all represent different aspects of reality; the clear sphere assuming the role of the Real, or perfect truth in which philosophers constantly seek, the solid ball embodies matter and the physical world as it truly is around us, and the mirrored sphere revealing ourselves and our perceptions, our minds' idea of the real.

    The mirrored sphere is used repeatedly by Escher, and touches on the heart of epistemology.  An understanding of the egocentric predicament is an unavoidable prerequisite to careful thinking, especially in epistemology and ethics (Christian 77).  The egocentric predicament, stated plainly, is the fact that one cannot truly understand anything beyond one's own perceptions of existence.  Empathy, sympathy, and understanding can only reach so far - but the ability to fully grasp the reality of anyone or anything else beyond oneself is impossible.  This is the ultimate predicament as living, thinking beings - we are trapped within our limited perceptions.  Escher's slight obsession of the mirrored sphere perfectly shows the struggle with this age old puzzle, as can be seen in a caption written for his work "Hand with Reflecting Sphere", created in 1935:

 title=Such a globe reflection collects almost one's whole surroundings in one disk-shaped image.  The whole room, four walls, the floor, and the ceiling, everything, albeit distorted, is compressed into that one small circle.  Your own head, or more exactly the point between your eyes, is in the absolute center.  No matter how you turn or twist yourself, you can't get out of that central point.  You are immovably the focus, the unshakable core, of your world. (Geis 16)

     This concept has probably been toiled over longer than nearly any other.  It's a powerful concept one really dives into it, both humbling and frightening, while also liberating and empowering.  It is an enigma which may never be solved, but one who's solution will surely continue to be sought by philosophers, undeterred by it's complexity and magnitude.

    In closing, while it may be easy to see Escher's art as gimmicky geometry based lithographs, there are such deeper and bolder meanings involved that deserve to be explored.  Seeking answers and explanations to the issues of life and death, layers of reality and perceptions, spanning to the ever present egocentric predicament.  All these intellectual musing echo timelessly in his works, and leave no doubt that Maurits Cornelis Escher was more than merely a noted artist, but also an under-recognized philosopher - a student of epistemology, seeking to understand, and to propose these questions to those who would seek to understand with him.


Works Cited:

Christian, James L. Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering.  Canada: Wadsworth, 2003.

Geis, Darlene, ed.  M.C. Escher.  New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1983.

Hofstadter, Douglas R.  Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.  New York: Vintage, 1979.

Originally posted to The BBQ Chicken Madness on Mon Feb 09, 2009 at 05:49 PM PST.

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