"Thanks to the M. C. Escher Foundation (Baarn-The Netherlands) for the permission for York College to include the Escher images in this article. This essay was published for the students and visitors to the exhibition "Infinite Realities: the Art of M. C. Escher" at York College, Pennsylvania, September 17 - November 1, 2003. Thanks also to the The Experience in Visual Arts Museum of Athens, Greece, whose outstanding collection of M. C. Escher artworks has made this exhibition possible and whose generous support has made my work with Escher an extraordinary pleasure. Finally, special thanks to Pamela Hemzik of York College whose unwavering enthusiasm for Escher and education have made this exhibition possible." - Jeffrey Price, Artists' Market, Norwalk, Connecticut, September, 2003

 

Escher SnakesAll M.C. Escher works © 2003 Cordon Art B.V. - Baarn - The Netherlands. All rights reserved.

How do we depict our place in the universe? From beyond the stars to beneath our feet, we are amazed by a complex web of interrelated concepts and creations. We interact with these miracles on a daily basis yet we can search endlessly for ways to describe the patterns and perceptions we encounter.

M. C. Escher spent a lifetime of creative exploration crafting visual metaphors which reflect aspects of existence that are often hidden from everyday sight. "Ringsnakes," his final woodcut created in 1969, is a fitting culmination of that quest. This is a masterful summation of Escher's fifty-year exploration of graphic visualization, as well as an unrivaled masterpiece of the woodblock artist's craft.

We might wonder what explanation Escher himself would give for this unusual circular print, but the artist seldom left us a detailed analysis of his pictures. Escher did write at some length about his technique, especially with regard to his tessellations, or tiling patters. These exacting works were discussed by Escher in his woodcut-illustrated book "Regelmatige Vlakverdeling" ("The Regular Division of the Plane"), published in 1958. His philosophical interpretations, on the other hand, tend to be brief and to the point. Escher's language was visual and he spoke eloquently through his art, content to leave lengthy literary musings to others. He preferred to allow viewers to unravel his pictorial mysteries, and delighted in other's mystical interpretations of what he called his ‘little games.'

We might ask if it is necessary for an artist to be fully aware of all the meanings infused within his art. It seems that creativity is quite often an unconscious or semi-conscious act. Certainly there are many things we don't understand about the creative process, and perhaps none is further from our cognitive grasp than the origins of inspiration. We might know that something ‘feels right' or that a story must be told, and artists may well be better served by just getting on with the task of making their creativity visible with whatever tools they choose to use rather than dwelling on analyzing the origins and meanings of their work.

Escher had always been drawn to the exploration of perfect repeating forms. Indeed, a mirrored image or tiled pattern is necessarily a perfect replicant of an essential shape, and any changes one makes to these carefully constructed images must be carried out with the utmost care so as to create a new form from the old. Thus, Escher's visual evolutions are simultaneously creation and destruction as birds flow into fish or building rise from the geometry of cubes.

Escher Smaller and Smaller
Smaller and Smaller,
1956 Wood Engraving

Woodcuts such as "Smaller and Smaller" and "Square Limit" Explored Escher's approaches to infinity. These patterns duplicate and recede into the abstraction of endlessness. "Smaller and Smaller" places the tiniest creatures at the center of things, whereas "Square Limit" places the smallest things at the outside of the design. Both prints reflect aspects of infinity that are true reflections of our world. Indeed, we see infinity in all directions, and Escher sought to illustrate this universality at the end of his long career.

As the 1960's drew to a close, Escher battled with the digestive ailments that would lead to his death in the spring of 1972. When he was well enough to work, he struggled with the challenge of creating "Ringsnakes." One of his great fears was that he would die before completing this extraordinary work. This print was so complex both in concept and execution that every step of the creative process necessitated unbelievable care. He was telling nothing less than the story of creation and consciousness, and his technique as well as his concepts reflected this monumental challenge.

As we look at the finished print we can begin to unravel its mysteries. The overall appearance of "Ringsnakes" might be likened to a Tibetian mandala painting, or perhaps to the rose window of a cathedral. It is fitting that we make these cosmic connections, though some also say that this print has the shape of twisting intestines reflecting Escher's medical maladies. While it is true that a print can mean many things, the complex structure and significance of Escher's images add more eloquent meaning to the print.

The diminishing rings draw us toward the center of the image, and this emptiness is a fitting starting place for Escher's creation saga. Many cosmologies place the beginning of things in a void. Sometimes this is the nothingness of distant space, or perhaps that place where a mystical power creates the first speck of matter. In this woodcut's center there is deep nothingness, blank paper surrounded by tiny interlocking rings. These can be seen as the building blocks of the universe, and they link together much as particles join into atoms and atoms join together in a seemingly endless chain of molecules and matter. Escher's rings weave in and out of one another in a deceptively complex pattern, and as they join together they grow larger and larger, much as our universe was constructed from arrangements of microscopic dust which came from beyond the stars.

Cycles are all around us, and we are continually caught in the web of birth, growth, and ageing. Whether we examine ourselves or our universe, there is a time when things reach fruition and burst into bloom. Planets form in the darkness of space, then there is light, and in time life evolves. These are miracles we believe and yet they remain beyond our understanding.

And so we see Escher's tiny rings grow larger as they spread out from the print's vortex, and eventually these circles reach their largest form; that ripe place where the spark of life can bloom, and it is here we find Escher's snakes.

Snakes have been a poignant symbol since the beginning of time. It was a snake, after all, that enticed Eve to have Adam partake of the apple of knowledge. This quest for knowledge is one of the keys to the duality of our consciousness: knowing something brings with it the responsibility of balancing good and evil. The snake is far from a good or simple character, and the forked-tongue hiss with which the serpent speaks may lead us to wisdom or astray.

It has been said that Escher chose no particular snake as the model for this print, and instead he studied many creatures and took their best features to create his composite ‘snakiest snake.' Escher's art, however, was at once exact and rule-driven while also being fantastic and full of imagination.

It happens that in the 1960's there was a widely-reported plague of snakes which spread from the orient across the Pacific. These so-called ‘brown snakes' were inadvertently carried on military aircraft and they bred wildly on islands without predators. Escher enjoyed reading about the sciences. His father had been an engineer, and his brother was a noted geologist. Escher himself kept detailed notebooks of his astronomical observations, and so it is likely that he read of the brown snake's infestation, and it seems this particular snake provided a perfect model for the creature in "Ringsnakes."

These snakes weave in and out of the largest rings, circling three times around the print. Perhaps all life grows in the midst of perfect forms, and certainly we are surrounded by a universe filled with patterns of atoms and the complex shapes of galaxies. Escher's snakes circle endlessly in and out of this world of interlocking rings. Though they do not swallow their own tails in the manner of the mythical oroborus (a cousin of the phoenix, and related in spirit to Escher's woodcut ‘Dragon'), the ringsnakes wind in rhythmic patterns that remind us that consciousness as well as good and evil have no set beginnings nor endings.

Just as we know that life came from distant infinitesimal beginnings, so we know it must diminish in time. In our short lives we travel from embryo to infant and from adult to elder. Even stars have their moments of glory and of darkness. Here in ‘Ringsnakes" the chain mail of circles grows to full form and then recedes again toward the edge of the print. In this pattern Escher found the perfect solution for the puzzle of illustrating infinity. The edge of the infinite is neither at the center of things nor at its edges. Infinity is in all directions simultaneously, and we are weaving through the center of its web.

We come to the end of Escher's visual journey as the outside of his woodcut diminishes into ever-smaller rings. It was not necessary for Escher to push the limits of carving the smallest shapes possible - he had accomplished that task exquisitely in "Smaller and Smaller" and now that he was an old man he knew the small rings he now carved could aptly symbolize infinity.

When Escher finished printing "Ringsnakes" he signed the work in pencil and added the notation "eigen druk" alongside the print. This is a fairly simple Dutch phrase, but it doesn't translate well. ‘Eigen" means "self" or "myself" and "druk" is from the verb "to print," so we might say Escher wrote "printed by myself," "self printed" or even "printed by the artist," but none of these translations has the concise elegance of "eigen druk." As is so often true when we switch from one language to another, the idea is transformed somewhat as we change the words into our own tongue.

Though Escher frequently added the notation "eigen druk" to his woodcuts, it is particularly noteworthy on "Ringsnakes" due to the complexity of his woodblock printing. Color woodcuts require the artist to carve separate blocks for each color, and these must be precisely aligned when he places his inked blocks onto the printing paper. "Ringsnakes" therefore required three blocks, one each for the gold, green and black in this image.

Escher Eight Heads
Eight Heads,
1922 Woodcut

Escher delighted in exploring the complexities of the hand-printing process. His earliest interlocking print, "Eight Heads", was crafted from a single block printed over and over, with its convoluted borders matching in seemingly magical symmetry. Later in his career Escher created "Square Limit" by printing a triangular woodblock four times around to create a square, and he explored even greater complexities in his ‘Circle Limit" woodcuts by printing them with blocks shaped like wedges or slices of pie.

Circle Limit IV - Angels and Devils, 1960 Woodcut

For "Ringsnakes" Escher created his complex patterns in a most efficient and extraordinary way. Each of his three color blocks creates just one-third of the final design, and the borders of these segments flow around the outlines of the snakes and rings in such a way that it is virtually impossible to see where the actual edges of the woodblock lie. Escher lore has it that a well-known art dealer offered to give collectors the original of "Ringsnakes" if they could show him where all the edges of the woodblocks were located in the final print - and of course he never gave away such a valuable print!

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