M.C. Escher – Relativity (1953)

Fascinated with science and mathematics, Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher tested the perception of reality in his highly elaborate lithographs, woodcuts and mezzotints. Although associated with Surrealism due to the fantastical imagery he depicted, the Dutchman never saw himself as belonging to any movement and approached his art with the rigor of a scientist and the wonder of a child.

Escher’s artworks, often seemingly tridimensional and engaging optical illusions, are first and foremost a study of human existence by focusing on the illusory structure that makes up our lives. In this sense, one of his most used motifs is the stairs – not only due to their geometry and versatility in conveying multiple dimensions, but also because they symbolize humans’ endless pursuit of moving up in the world and the obsession with hierarchies.

MC Escher - Ascending and Descending
M.C. Escher – Ascending and Descending (1960), lithograph. Detail.

While working on Ascending and Descending, a lithograph that had people walking up and down stairs on the roof of a large building, as if stuck in a circle of hell, Escher explained the symbolism of the stairs in a letter he wrote to a friend:

“That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”

MC Escher - Relativity
M.C. Escher – Relativity (1953), lithograph

The same motif is also used in Relativity, where people are going up and down staircases seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity. Moreover, the artist used multiple viewpoints. You can see, for instance, at the top of the print,  that while a person is ascending the stairs, another one is descending. This labyrinth which faceless people are navigating suggests a well-oiled machine, with human beings as cogs that keep it working by following their own strange rules of physics.

Similar to Ascending and Descending, this constant motion that leads to nowhere reminds us of the existentialism of Albert Camus who addressed the drama of humanity in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In it Camus illustrates the absurdity of life through the Greek myth of Sisyphus, king of Corinth who, punished by the gods, had to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only to see it come down again when it reached the top. In addition to the philosophical undertones and the mathematical accuracy, Escher’s art is, at its very core, a feast for the eyes and mind that constantly challenges our construction of reality.

24 thoughts on “M.C. Escher – Relativity (1953)

        1. I’m so glad you like it! I was going to write about “Reptiles” initially, but there was nothing new I could have added. It was definitely more complex than I had anticipated.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. For someone who has never quite understood fine arts, your content provides a great insight into the meaning behind art pieces. I also love the philosophy behind this piece, that we as humans are never satisfied. We are not. Humans never reach satisfaction because of so many factors that shape us like social influence, ambition and curiosity that leaves with this feeling of ‘wanting more’. Humans are greedy. We always want more. I don’t know about the technicalities of this piece, but this is what it resonated with me; that everyone has a different reality (as to why they defy laws of gravity) and that we all want to climb higher to a greater reward system in our brain that leaves us wanting more.

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    1. Oh, you don’t need to worry about the technicalities… Escher had such an innate talent for mathematics that it’s said 11 strands of mathematical and scientific research have been inspired or anticipated by him. What bewilders the eye is his great understanding of math and physics and his knowledge on how to manipulate them.

      I’m really glad the artwork appealed to you. Yes, we’re eternally dissatisfied and clearly obsessed with hierarchies, with being better than others. And we see our lives as this linear path that only goes up. It’s utterly heartbreaking when the path makes a detour and we need to descend a few steps… Making our own reality is the only protection from those unspoken social rules.

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          1. Neither is it mine, but I write to stay sane. I appreciate what you do on your blog. It is great to understand something I could never do, even though I am a performing artist.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Taru. They mean a lot. I think many people assume they don’t know the first thing about art, but surely we all know – at least, intuitively – whether we like or dislike something, if it’s visually appealing or intriguing enough. The rest is research.


      1. Escher’s work is so fascinating and complex and yet you’ve manage to present it in a very approachable way thanks to your wonderful style. Wonderful!
        Upon reading your post, one artwork and a book came to my mind: Catch 22 is the book and Dr. Seuss’ The Economic Situation Clarified is the artwork. Both make great companions to Escher and I always have them mentally on hand 🙂

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        1. Thanks, Ingrid! I like how Escher makes people think of associations right away. He still gets our brains working. I haven’t read Catch 22 yet (I started it a while ago, but never finished it), but I can see what you mean with Dr. Seuss’ artwork. It’s such a great reference.

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          1. I was told to hang on tight for the first 6 chapters of Catch 22 and it is true… after that, you cannot put it down and you want to re-read it, again and again.

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      1. 1927 was probably before your time but in brief it was a sci fi movie of machine over man in the future. I think the people on the steps reminded me somewhat of the worker scene in the movie. The Escher lithograph you’ve posted is more aesthetically pleasing. Always a treasure to view what you’ve shared here.

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        1. Waaaaaaaaaaaaay before my time! I did watch ‘It Happened One Night’ from 1934 and several from the 1940s, so it’s not that I dislike old movies. I might check out ‘Metropolis’ and see how it compares to the lithograph. This is something that never crosses our minds, but many of these modern artists might have been influenced by movies too. They were clearly popular at the time.

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  2. Escher was the best thing about my Geometry class in High School, as out textbook had several of his illustrations in it. And I agree with him that he doesn’t belong in any movement. I think he has a very special and peculiar aptitude with visual math that is well beyond possibly almost any other artist. I saw a documentary about how some mathematicians came up with or solved theorems or some such mathematical thing based on at least one of his paintings.

    There’s a working artist that has a lot of overlap. Next I come across him I’ll try to send you a link.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were very lucky, my geometry classes weren’t as exciting. I was very surprised to find out that Escher’s art is still studied today at universities, in order to discuss/apply/research mathematical concepts. It’s simply amazing what an impact he’s had all these decades.

      An overlapping artist? That’s great, send that link when you get the chance. I’m definitely curious.


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