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Why Escher Hurts

Here is Rahul Malayappan’s essay entry in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize Contest. Rahul was a finalist in the contest, and he wrote about his experience here.

TomPorcelliRahulphotoThere is something persistently enigmatic about the works of M.C. Escher. In all of his art, from the most complex of his illusions to his most regular geometric tessellations, he
combines elements of artist, mathematician and illusionist in a way that leaves his viewers asking, “How did he do that?” as if they have just witnessed a magic show or a daredevil stunt. Escher’s artwork is more than simply visually appealing; each piece poses an intellectual challenge to its viewers, forcing them to make sense of the conundrums that he creates. Out of all of Escher’s works, Waterfall , a lithograph of a perpetual cascade of water, is among the most striking and powerful. The power of Escher’s Waterfall lies in the subtlety with which it presents the impossible and exposes the fallibility of our own capacity to observe and perceive.

At first glance, there is nothing overtly outrageous or unusual about Waterfall. The work appears merely as an exhibition of the water carrying structure that takes up most of its space, with a rather flat perspective that gives the work an initial air of technicality; it is reminiscent of an architectural study or a mechanical drawing. The work is monochromatic, typical of Escher, and the lack of color compounds its sense of ordinariness. There are no extreme distortions or striking imbalances; Waterfall dons a regular and unassuming visage for those who peruse it briefly. A little more attention tunes viewers to a slight sense of oddity, created by geometrical forms near the top, exotic looking plants in the corner and a background that intersperses foliage amidst irregularly layered formations. But while these details do give the work somewhat of an air of strangeness, they do not violate the viewers’ senses themselves. Rather, their peculiarity alerts the viewers to the possibility that there is something more that is deeply bizarre about the lithograph, and they encourage a deeper look into Waterfall.

Escher_WaterfallIt is only afterwards, when the viewer’s eyes take the natural course and follow the water along one full journey in its path, that Waterfall ’s most important paradox becomes apparent; even so the realization is gradual, more like the development of an annoying itch than a slap in the face. Initially, the path of the water flowing through the channel from the base of the waterfall seems perfectly natural; the sides of the path step downwards, and it is common knowledge that water flows downhill. The slope does not appear steep at all, and so it looks as if the water is ambling along steadily through the channel. Yet one full loop around the path and down the waterfall puts the viewers in a shock; after following the water all the way downhill, they find themselves right back where they started, at the base of the tall waterfall from which they embarked. The other contradictions flood in soon afterwards; pillars appear to layer segments of the path that are of almost equal elevation, while the channel appears impossibly to raise and stay approximately level at the same time. It is not possible to pinpoint any single element of the work that causes this contradiction; rather, the issues come from views of the lithograph from different perspectives, each of which is completely incompatible with the rest.

What is unsettling about Escher’s illusion is the ease with which he convinces our minds to accept such an impossible construct. Each element of Waterfall seems to make sense
individually, and Escher’s use of perspective allows the various parts to cohere internally. In isolation, the waterfall and the flow of water and the differences in elevation seem to exist without posing any difficulty to the audience. The descent of the waterfall past two levels of the aqueduct seems perfectly natural, as does the stream of water flowing around the structure and the stratification of the channel into different levels separated by pillars. This is true even after the viewer becomes aware of Escher’s farce; we are still able to see the water making its way through the channel and down the waterfall even though we are aware that such an arrangement is physically impossible. In spite of Escher’s violation of our physical and natural intuition, we are still able to digest and accept the disparate elements of the work; our discomfort stems from our understanding of these independent elements and the contradictions that arise between them. This is especially unnerving in Waterfall in comparison to the rest of Escher’s art because of its dynamism. Unlike the static pillars of Belvedere or unmoving staircases of Ascending and Descending, the water in Waterfall must give the impression of moving, and so Escher must toy not only with the laws of perspective but also with those of physics to be successful in his illusion.

Escher’s juxtaposition between the ordinary and the outlandish is apparent even in minor details. A host of quotidian elements is strewn about the lithograph; the canal is constructed of ordinary brick, while the building adjacent to the water is structurally normal and unremarkable in construction. A person is hanging clothes from a line in the corner of the work while a bystander is casually reclining down below. Yet there are also details of Waterfall that are as unusual as the others are banal, including the plants in the corner that look like they come straight from the depths of the ocean and the polyhedral shapes that ornament the two main columns of the aqueduct system in perhaps a surreal nod to Escher’s dabblings in solid geometry. Escher’s choice of detail contributes to his ability to disrupt our power of perception; in immersing incongruous elements amidst normal ones, he subconsciously makes them more difficult for the viewers to question.

The most troubling aspect of Waterfall is that it calls into doubt our ability to observe and gather information about the world, one of the most indispensable qualities that we possess. How can we trust our powers of observation when they are so easily deceived by a structure so patently impossible, and how can we be sure of our perceptive faculties when they manage to provide us with ideas that contradict each other? Waterfall makes it clear that our observations are frail; they can easily be deluded to construct pictures of the world that are nonsensical or incoherent. And these senses attempt to piece together models of the world even when they are conscious of the impossibility of their task; this is why the separate components of Waterfall appear to make logical sense long after a viewer realizes that they are part of a hopelessly absurd structure.

The issue is that we have no choice but to trust these senses that are so facilely deceived. There is no alternative way to gather information about the world around us, and we become encumbered when any of our faculties are impaired. These senses form the bridge between our minds and the world around us, and they are irreplaceable. This is the most crushing realization that Escher forces the viewers of Waterfall to face; while our perceptions may be easily deceived, we are stuck with them. We are constrained to use flimsy sensory powers, and those are the only senses that we can employ. We can only hope that the picture that we develop is reliable and that our interactions with the world around us are accurate. Waterfall tests the limits of our capacity to understand and reason, and Escher bamboozles us with disconcerting ease. Waterfall teases us; its semblance of normalcy and isolated comprehensibility make it appear within our grasp, yet it manages to confound us and stay just slightly beyond our reach. Waterfall makes it painfully clear that our own hold on reality is a fragile thing and that we are deceived more easily than we would like to be.

Rahul Malayappan is attending the University of California at Berkeley. His  interests include physics, computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics. Rahul was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut.