M. C. Escher:
Cycle, Spirals, and Snakes

May 17 – September 27, 2008


Cycle Spirals Snakes Exhibit

An illustrated exhibition catalog is available: M.C. Escher: Cycle, Spirals, and Snakes (PDF 7.5MB)

Cycle, Spirals, and Snakes
Unity, Duality, and Infinity in M. C. Escher's Prints

“I think I have never yet done any work with the aim of symbolizing a particular idea,
but the fact that a symbol is sometimes discovered or remarked upon is valuable for me because it makes it easier to accept the inexplicable nature of my hobbies, which constantly preoccupy me.” – M. C. Escher

To express the deepest mysteries or fundamental truths of creation and consciousness is a quest worthy of the highest arts. To understand even a small piece of the puzzle of perception is a task to fill a lifetime. When we begin to see the patterns that underlie the paradoxes of existence, then we catch a glimpse of revelations we may never fully comprehend.

M. C. Escher said little about the meaning of his artwork and the attraction of his images was a great mystery to him. Nevertheless, he was compelled by what he described as ‘a hopeless mania’ to create pictures of objects both perfect and impossible, of scenes quite fantastic and yet completely believable, and to describe in great detail things we might not otherwise be aware of. I believe that Escher’s art continues to resonate in the century after it was created because his pictures illustrate themes that are fundamental to our consciousness. This essay will explore three of Escher’s prints which hold keys to understanding why the artist was intrigued by such unusual imagery and why they continue to fascinate such a wide audience today.

In M. C. Escher’s first great illusionary lithograph, “Cycle” from 1938, we see a boy running from a tower and down some steps. His arms are raised in a somewhat awkward salutation, and he’s smiling, perhaps in secret reverie. His journey is short and yet this passage encompasses his entire world. As he descends the stairs a transformation occurs that is as miraculous as any myth. In a few steps he metamorphosizes into marble and what was once an actor becomes his stage. Beyond the tower is a serene landscape, perhaps part of the Tuscan countryside or maybe a small portion of paradise. This is the setting for Escher’s story: an extraordinary adventure in a miraculous world.“Cycle” can be seen as an archetypal image of the universe created from our own being. Is everything our imagining? Where does our interior landscape end and the countryside begin? What is the essential difference between body and stone, and why can we find soul in one and not the other? By illustrating such fascinating questions, perhaps Escher proposes that everything from the distant hills to our outstretched hands is a part of a complex, ever-changing and often invisible cycle.

Perhaps one might ask whether this storyteller Escher actually meant for his pictures to have such plots and for philosophical connections to be drawn from artworks that are personal, often rather technical, and only occasionally overtly picturesque. I propose that this is the essence of great art, and the very nature of revelation. The artist can be a messenger bringing each viewer a looking-glass through which one may discover things unknown to either the author or his audience.

The artist can give substance to that which is visible to him alone. To express the complex beauty of a perfect shape might be seen as the function of mathematics more readily than the task of a printmaker. An equation, after all, is a way of understanding the relationship between things, and geometry is the most precise way to describe the fundamental structure of forms. In his 1955 woodcut “Spirals” Escher has illustrated the evolution of a perfect and complex object, an unwinding banded cone floating against a grey background. We see similar shapes within a nautilus shell and in the spirals of distant galaxies, but it is a difficult task indeed to make all of this visible by carving channels in a block of wood. Undoubtedly, these spirals are a somewhat surprising subject for an artwork, requiring months of planning and tedious exacting woodcarving and printing. This is a design intensely challenging in both concept and execution, and it is this complexity which may be at the heart of ‘Spirals’ beauty. Escher’s inspiration may well have been his desire to make this difficult object exist, and to undertake the task of actualization with his chisels, ink and paper, guided by his imagination, experience, and craftsmanship. Creating such perfection is a sublime art and understanding it fully challenges our senses and our intellect.


Escher’s spiral cornucopia is constructed of four parallel bands, each shaded with a subtle and systematic arrangement of lines and lozenges. Escher’s technique is deceptively simple, since the print is created by pressing two inked woodblocks onto a sheet of paper. How these two blocks create the three shades in the print – black, grey, and white – is a surprisingly complex and highly technical puzzle, as is the precise geometric arrangement of spiraling lines and shapes. Escher’s inks make visible simultaneously the inside and the outside of the bands which lead us toward infinity. If we search for the very beginning of this growing form, we can find the tip of the spiral placed precisely between two bands at the right, its extreme apex exquisitely visible just before our view is blocked by the circling outer rind. The curves both wrap around and spring out of loops which we can imagine having no beginning and no end; this is clearly part of a growing and evolving thing, somehow both organic and mechanical, an illustration of a object as well as of a creative idea. It is as if an ever-evolving spiral has been frozen for a moment so that we may observe it close-up. We witness here a small piece of the infinite created from two blocks of wood, cut with chisels, covered with ink and pressed to paper by Escher in his studio. Lines and spaces of black, grey and white create something impossibly perfect and fantastically dimensioned on a white sheet of paper within a picture frame.

RingsnakesFundamental forms such as these are known to us and yet often lie beyond our sight. The search for harmony, logic, and the universal rules of order is both alluring and terrifying. As Faust found, there are some secrets which are better left unknown, and mysteries best left behind the shadows. And so we find serpents weaving through perfect interlocking rings in Escher’s final creation, his 1968 woodcut “Ringsnakes.” After a lifetime spent making things visible that we see with our minds as well as our eyes, Escher faced a monumental struggle to bring his last artwork to completion. His health failing, he feared he would not live long enough to carve and print the three woodblocks that were required to create this masterpiece. “Ringsnakes” is complex in structure, execution, and meaning; expressing the duality of natural and perfect forms, the unity of all creation, and a sublime realization of the infinite.

Escher frequently expressed the infinite in his art. His woodcut ‘Smaller and Smaller,’ for example, presents us with ever-diminishing lizards as we approach the center of the design. Traveling in the other direction, the figures in Escher’s series of ‘Circle Limit’ woodcuts reduce in size towards their edges. “Ringsnakes” combines and completes these transformations, creating a cycle that is unified and universal. Whether we begin at the center of the figure or approach from its outer edge, first we find the smallest rings. These may be seen as the seeds of creation. Escher, empowered with the wisdom of experience, did not have to carve impossibly tiny rings to give us the sense of the infinite, the smallest circles serve as symbolic links of a never-ending chain. Each ring intertwines with others, both larger and smaller. It is the nature of many things to be both growing and shrinking simultaneously. As we advance in wisdom and age, so also we may decline in innocence and lose the possibilities of youth. Mists rise from the seas and fall as rain. In mythology, a phoenix can be reborn from its ashes and a serpent might swallow its own tail and regenerate.

In the universe of rings which Escher creates we can watch evolution unfold. We might see this as an allegory of creation from the first dust of atoms at the edge of space to the complexities our living planet. As it happens, only where Escher’s rings reach their largest size can they be inhabited by living creatures. And so, when the world is ripe, there are snakes. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden to the cobra on Cleopatra’s crown, the snake has always been a powerful symbol of temptation, wisdom, and duality. It is said that Moses turned his staff into a snake to overpower Pharaoh, and the Egyptian replicated his magic producing snakes on both sides of their epic struggle.

OurorborosSnakes can have wondrous powers. Related to the phoenix, the mythological ouroboros was a serpent which swallowed its tail to be continually re-born from its own essence. The shape of the ouroboros is closely related to the never-ending patterns Escher describes in “Cycle,” “Spirals,” and in “Ringsnakes.” Escher’s ringsnakes circle endlessly, seeming to carry with them the gift and burden of wisdom as well as the contradictory powers of our desires. If the snake can be seen as a symbol for all that is conscious and alive, both wonderful and terrifying, then it is appropriate that in this print they weave in and out of such perfect and conceptualized rings. We can see the universe as composed of both the essential formulas which govern molecules and of our cryptic consciousness which struggles to understand itself. We are rather chaotic humans within a universe where perfection is invisible yet pervasive. The linked chains of “Ringsnakes” illustrate a pathway to and from infinity, interwoven with serpentine creatures whose writhing undulations unite them as they circumnavigate the cosmos and weave together perfection with the every-changing power of life.

To create this circular woodcut with maximum symmetry and a minimum of wood-carving, Escher carved wedge-shaped printing blocks that completed the print with three impressions. Since “Ringsnakes” is printed with three colors, each color required three printings covering one-third of the image at a time. The edges of each block were fashioned irregularly so that their seams were hidden by the image’s borderlines. Escher pressed three impressions from each wood block – three times around this wheel of creation – printing nine inked segments making three layers of color into one unified picture which tells a story that Escher worked a lifetime to create.

We can never know how much of this message Escher consciously intended, but we do know that this image inspired him to continue work as the frailties of age crept over him. “Ringsnakes” stands as the triumphant legacy of an artist who labored tirelessly in solitude and with endless diligence to express the wonders our eyes perceive and our mind struggles to comprehend. The patterns Escher composed in “Cycle,” “Spirals” and “Ringsnakes” give us a path along which we can discover even more than the artist himself may have been aware of, for the doors he opened ultimately reveal what we find reflected in the mirrors of our own perception.


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Partial view of the exhibition 'Cycle, Spirals, and Snakes' 2008

Jeffrey Price jp@artistsmarket.com

This essay is dedicated to Hans deRijk, who has shared Escher’s magic with the world
through his prose, and has shared his friendship so very generously with me,
and to my wife Esta, who stayed awake while I wrote this essay in a Venetian palace.