Had he still been alive, M.C. Escher would have been 100 years old in 1998 when a conference was held in Rome in his honor. Escher’s Legacy collects the papers that were presented at this conference. The editors organized the 41 papers into three categories, articles by authors who knew Escher personally, articles by artists who have been strongly influenced by Escher, and technical papers related to Escher’s work.
Mathematician might be particularly interested in Escher’s Legacy because:
- Two articles in Escher’s Legacy relate directly to mathematical education.
- Escher’s name is often mentioned in introductory mathematics texts.
- Escher worked at the boundary between mathematics and art; Escher’s Legacy explores that particular aspect of Escher’s work.
- Both editors of Escher’s Legacy are mathematicians.
- Many of the articles in Escher’s Legacy are by mathematicians.
While mathematicians are inclined to think of Escher as an artist, artists often think of him as a mathematician. In fact, this topic is addressed briefly in many of the articles throughout Escher’s Legacy. A few quotes from these discussions seemed particularly interesting:
Escher used geometry masterfully … his works celebrate polyhedra, spheres, knots, and Möbius bands. (p. VI)
(Escher’s) lament “I cannot draw” is an exaggeration. (p. 14)
Perhaps mathematics was to Escher as grammar was to Shakespeare. Mathematics is form. (p. 89)
Mathematics is beauty. For most people, this is hard to understand. … How can something that is pleasing to look at be the result of these formulas? (p. 230)
Escher’s name is mentioned more often in introductory mathematics and psychology texts than in introductions to art history. (p. 413)
Escher’s most popular works probably are his drawings of impossible objects and scenes, but his artistic work also included landscapes, animal studies, tessellations, and studies of reflection. While all of these different sorts of drawings were addressed by one author or another in Escher’s Legacy, a great number of the articles focused on the tessellations. For the technical papers, this is not so surprising because of the explicit mathematical content of the subject matter. Likewise, it is not so surprising that the papers related to mathematical education focused only the tessellations; however, it is much more surprising that a majority of the papers by artists also focused on tessellations.
It’s important to understand that educational initiatives are not intended to turn amateurs into experts, but to enrich visitors’ view of an artist by suggesting avenues to explore.
These words, from Escher’s Legacy (p. 410) were intended to describe a show at a museum, but they seem an appropriate description of Escher’s Legacy, as well. Reading through Escher’s Legacy, one cannot help but find some refreshing ideas.
Paul Cohen received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, was appointed as a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study by Kurt Gödel, and has taught at the University of Tennessee and at Lehigh University. He currently lives in Maine and is teaching at Colby College.