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Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Here are two beautiful prints of ants by the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher. In art, ants are frequently metaphors for over ripeness, rottenness or ruin (think of Dali’s ants). Yet in Escher’s works they are something else entirely. The first print, a lithograph from the grim year 1943, shows a single ant. An ant alone hardly seems to exit—they are pieces of a larger superorganism. Yet here we have one of the creatures all by herself. How lovely and delicate she is: look at her crimped antennae and graceful segmented legs. Yet the ant’s head is down, and she has a slightly forlorn cast—as though she is about to be crushed. The print was made at a time when the nations of the world organized themselves into vast battling hives and individual humans hardly seemed to exist any more than individual ants. Working in the occupied Netherlands, the comparison could hardly have escaped the artist.

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

 

The second print is a woodcut from 1963. A line of red ants march stolidly along a Möbius strip. Because the strip they are on is non-orientable, their little universe has only one endless side. The insects are literally traveling forever. Is this print a tableau of futility or a metaphor for the infinite? The question is about more than just the microcosm the ants are trapped within.

Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Here are two early woodcuts from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. In the course of time, Escher would become extremely famous for intricate black and white prints which picture the paradoxical juxtaposition and interplay of seemingly irreconcilable moral, aesthetic, or mathematical concepts. These two works, however, date from 1919 when the artist was only twenty years old and was still finding his artistic path. World War I had just ended (as had the Spanish flu epidemic) and a dark pall seemed to still hover over humankind. Escher had been a sickly child who failed to excel at any particular course of studies in secondary school. He was studying (and failing) architecture at Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. In a few years he would reconcile himself with the artistic life and set off for Italy, but in these works some of the gloom of the war, and of his unhappy youth seems to linger in the solemn simple lines of the huge enigmatic trees.

 

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The two woodcuts here both show fractal trees against the cosmic backdrop of a black sky with a single luminous star burning in the heavens. In Tree, a tiny benighted human figure drops to his knees in front of the great tree which seems to hold a burning star within its interwoven branches. The Borger Oak is even starker: the boughs of the tree are becoming a simple recursive pattern against white hills. A glowing celestial body fitfully illuminates the scene. Already the themes which would dominate Escher’s life work are apparent: the recursive patterns of mathematic sequences are apparent in the prints (albeit not with the vertiginous intricacy which would characterize later works). Both works are simple and beautiful microcosms. The trees represent life, science, and even the entire universe itself (like Yggdrasil, the world tree of ancient northern myth). Living things and the laws of space are both part of an overarching pattern.

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