Dialogue on Escher: between Math and Illusion

Dialogue on Escher: between Math and Illusion

More than 200 works from Maurits Cornelis Escher, the celebrated Dutch engraver and graphic artist, are on display at Palazzo Reale in Milan until 22 January. His woodcut engravings and lithographs explore the infinite by means of tessellation of the plane, and interpret original concepts pertaining to mathematics and science. The result is an alienation effect that leaves you in disbelief. Here’s a dialogue about the exhibition.


Giulia: Hello?

Federica: Hey Giulia! How are you?

G: Fine, thanks. You?

F: Not bad. A little under the weather, but oh well.

G: Tell me everything.

F: I finally went to Palazzo Reale to see the Escher exhibition.

G: Finally! Did you like it?

F: A lot, actually. I wasn’t familiar with his work, so I didn’t know what to expect.

G: You know that the cover art on the Oscar Mondadori edition of Orwell’s 1984 is his?

F: I didn’t until I saw a copy at the exhibit … Tetrahedral Planetoid! Escher’s art still plays a part in our daily lives, even if we don’t always recognize the images.

G: The last part of the exhibition demonstrating Escher’s intellectual legacy is right on: David Bowie’s Labyrinth video, and the reflective ball on Nomadi’s Quasi Quasi album cover.

F: Even the Hogwarts stairs are inspired by his artwork, which was clearly inspired by our beloved Piranesi.

G: I immediately thought of Piranesi when I saw the prints, and then the audio guide confirmed my intuition. And, although it was not mentioned, a video game based on the works of Escher and the psychology of perception has just come out. It’s called Monument Valley.

Works from Escher (left) and Piranesi (right)

F: I didn’t know that, though you know that I’m not that into video games. However, the exhibit was comprehensive. Even though I wasn’t familiar with Escher’s work, the show gave me the tools to understand him.

G: Which room was your favorite?

F: The first room, the one with the Emblem Books. You know how I am, I see a couple of Latin emblem books and I’m smitten! Seriously, I think that the entire idea is simply brilliant: to publish a compendium of 24 epigrams taken from a work like Alciati’s Liber Emblematum as well as other Latin pieces, and then add a sarcastic comment in Dutch with an explanatory wood engraving. Wow!

G: You’re right, really brilliant. And I think what makes them so brilliant is their immediacy. Think about it, for example, flowers start to wilt the day after you buy them, so this is of course associated with the transience of life and explains the maxim, “For pleasure seekers, the disease seems far away.” It reiterates the meaning perfectly without being redundant. And the woodcuts are stunning.

F: Too bad for the sarcastic Dutch comments.  Didn’t you understand them?

G: Haha, no I’m still working on it! But you’re right, I would have liked a translation so that I could have enjoyed them with everyone else.

F: The other part that I liked a lot is the one with the focus on three-dimensionality and illusion. I looked at each print a long time and got lost inside each of them trying to catch every detail. The longer I stared, the more I noticed something different. Each work is a perfect mix of math, geometry, art, and the theory of perception. And the beauty is that you can enjoy every work on each of these levels. The Belvedere for example: at first glance, it seems like just a nice glimpse, surreal yes – with all the characters dressed in medieval clothes and the castle in the middle of nowhere – but still a landscape. Then you look at it more carefully and notice that the castle’s columns overlap in a way that they should not, and the cube held in the hands of the broken little man is very strange–and is, in fact, is Necker cube.

G: I really liked the attempt to make an impossible solid possible with the cube’s interactive activities. Were you able to find the right spot to take a picture of it?

F: More or less.

Escher’s “Belvedere” and one of the exhibit’s activities: The Necker Cube

G: I liked that there was a chance to become the protagonist of the “aberrant twist” of the Art Gallery. I was shocked by both the beauty of the work and the difficulty in conceiving it. Crazy!

F: What a beautiful definition, “aberrant twist”, so linguistically rich and eloquent in explaining the limits of a purely mathematical calculation graphically transposed with images. Your favorite work?

G: Metamorphosis, definitely.

F: Ah! I knew it!

G: I wish I had a giant house so I could hang one of the eight-meter reproductions of that work. Starting with the letters M and E then with views of the Atrani, passing lizards, chess board, and bees are precisely the kind of thing that I not only find enchanting but that I would also like to study and learn. It would have been great to have the chance to see the drawings and preparatory work calculations.


The exhibition’s interactive activities like “Art Gallery” make the viewer the protagonaist of the piece that the computer recreates with an aberrant twist

F: I bet you bought the mini print!

G: Of course, of course! And the exhibition catalog, which was 29 euro well spent.

F: I bought a Belvedere poster.

G: Oh, I had no doubt.

F: But I didn’t take the picture inside the Reflecting Sphere. At least 8 people I follow on Instagram had already posted a picture of it, so I thought it wouldn’t be original.

G: It wasn’t you, but you have to admit that it was really a nice find.

F: Look, maybe we’ll go to the next show together?

G: Yes, let’s organize.

F: I better go before I burn my vegan burgers.

G: Uh sure, you never know! So, I’ll leave you to your gourmet dinner. Take care not to overdo it!

F: Look, despite your suspicions, they’re very good. The next time I make them, you can  taste one. And while you’re here, you can see the Escher print hanging in my room.

G: All right, then. Good night!

F: Same to you, darling!

If you want to see the Escher exhibition at Palazzo Reale like protagonists of this dialogue, you can book your tickets here.


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