M.C. Escher on Creativity and Grasping the Largest Mystery Through the Immense Beauty of the Very Small
“What is that so-called reality; what is this theory other than a beautiful but primordially human illusion?”
By Maria Popova
Nothing shapes our experience of reality, and nothing limits it, more than our frames of reference. Every transcendent achievement of perspective is the product of a shift in the frame of reference, as is the hard-earned glory of maturity.
Few artists have recognized this more clearly and made of that recognition a more enchanting plaything than M.C. Escher (June 17, 1898–March 17, 1972).
Despite the staggering loneliness of his gift, Escher considered his work a “marvelous game” of letting thought penetrate “into the farthest reaches of so-called real space,” winged with the ultimate question:
What is that so-called reality; what is this theory other than a beautiful but primordially human illusion?
He questioned our “rigid faith in our senses” — the sense-perception we take for the ultimate proof of reality, yet which has so often mislead us: the flatness of the Earth, the geocentric universe, the myriad self-referential subjectivities that have blinded us to the real reality. In consonance with the Nobel-winning quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr’s reckoning with subjective vs. objective reality, Escher observed:
All of our senses reveal only a subjective world to us; all we can do is think and possibly mean that therefore we can conclude the existence of an objective world.
For Escher, deducing an objective world was a matter of training our senses to pay closer and closer attention — a way of grasping the largest mystery by attending ever more acutely to the very small. A century before the bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer made her exquisite case for moss as a lens on attentiveness to wonder at all scales and years before the great nature writer Henry Beston (who inspired Rachel Carson, who inspired Escher) made his soulful case for the sacredness of smallness, the twenty-five-year-old Escher wrote in a letter:
I want to delight in the smallest of small things, a bit of moss 2 centimeters in diameter on a little piece of rock, and I want to try here what I have been wishing for so long, namely to copy these tiniest bits of nothing as accurately as possible just to realize how great they are. I’ve already started that but it is so dreadfully difficult. With your nose right on top of it, you see all of its beauty and all of its simplicity, but when you start drawing, only then do you realize how terribly complicated and shapeless that beauty really is.
Escher spent a lifetime translating this passionate devotion to the scales of delight into his perspective-shifting art. In a letter penned in his mid-fifties, he placed the essence of creativity in this fidelity to making the invisible visible, bridging subjective and objective reality in the gesture of generosity we call art:
With every artistic expression, whether it concerns music, literature, or the visual arts, it is first of all a question of sending a message to the outside world, that is to say, making a personal thought, a striking idea, an inner emotion visible to others in a sensual manner and this in such a way that the viewer does not remain uncertain about the creator’s intent.
Couple with Beethoven on creativity, then revisit the story of the refugee who revolutionized the mathematics of reality with the discovery of fractals and Ellen Bass’s poignant poem of perspective, “The Big Picture.”
Published November 15, 2022