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.
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.”
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.