The Insects of M.C. Escher

Born June 7, 1898, Escher was a self proclaimed graphic artist and self denounced studio artist. He became fascinated with the geometric processes of filling the plain (tessellation) and his imagery took a biased towards asymmetrical natural forms of which insects were often his subject matter. He made the comment that insects are generally best recognized from above; his prints reflecting this belief. In searching for the possible inspiration behind his insect imagery, it is hard to find much more than an obsession with process and order although he developed themes such as evolution and metamorphosis. Escher’s biographies do expose some examples of his feelings towards nature.

M.C. Escher butterfly

M.C. Escher Butterfly, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

M.C. Escher ant

M.C. Escher Ant, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 2.

While observing 70,000 year old Lascaux cave paintings, Escher noted that prehistoric artists were in direct contact with nature unlike contemporary artists who are generally exposed to nature through what he considered an obstructive educational system. He later made an interesting analogy; illustrations compare to the graphic print as a caterpillar does to a butterfly. He went on to explain that illustrations are not acceptable as autonomous manifestations of art but that they are only an interim stage. Therefore, the illustration, like the caterpillar, as the end result is inherently dissatisfying. Escher respected the order he found within the insect realm. He commented that the graphic arts inherent fascination comes from the desire to multiply and that the beauty of the craft was in the forced limitations resulting from the technique.

M.C. Escher butterfly and fish

M.C. Escher Butterfly and Fish, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

M.C. Escher two insects

M.C. Escher Two Insects, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

Some potentially deeper insight into Escher’s use of insects comes from a biographic essay by Jan W Vermeulen. Vermeulen paints Escher as a lonely, sensitive and retreating to his work kind of person. He suggests that Escher’s prints are so universally appealing because of their hidden messages and sensitive strings that reflect all of the suppressed intentions behind Escher’ inspirations. He makes the comment that Escher’s dense patterns can only be viewed as one component element at a time and that the individual motifs were always mutually alienating the surrounding ones and that you only really SEE one form at a time. The final print with the illusion of togetherness juxtaposed against the tormenting individualism of the single motif carries hidden emotional charge and deep philosophical questions into how we see the world around us. Maybe Escher’s quest for filling the plane and perfecting methodology was his way of expressing his need to really acknowledge the world around him; nature and insect inclusive. Escher claims himself that there are no hidden meanings in his work and that is why he jostles with the concept of himself as an artist. Even under the formidable facade of technique and science, it is reasonable to assume that Escher, as an inspirable observationalist, was fascinated in the detail and order he found within the insect realm. As a result, over twenty of his prints include insect motifs.

M.C. Escher beetles

M.C. Escher Beetles, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

M.C. Escher butterflies

M.C. Escher Butterflies, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

I strongly recommend Visions of Symmetry by Doris Schattschneider for anyone interested in the geometry, original notes, and workbooks of M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher bugs

M.C. Escher Bugs, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.

M.C. Escher butterflies

M.C. Escher Butterflies, Cultural Entomology Digest, Issue 1.