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Depth

Last week I wrote that Escher hasn’t been positively regarded by art critics for years. But in the end he himself was his greatest critic. There are certainly exceptions, but often he was dissatisfied with his latest creation. This varied from ‘this is just not good enough’ and ‘there should be more to it than this’ to ‘this really is a total failure.’ At the end of October 1955 he was again dissatisfied with his work.

In a letter to his son Arthur he wrote about his latest work Depth:

‘After almost endless effort I ended my new fish print. Although I am absolutely not satisfied with it (the simplicity of the “depth suggestion”, is one of the most difficult tasks I have ever asked myself), I can not consider it completely unsuccessful either. The feeling that I have done it as well as I could, doesn’t guarantee its quality. But it does give peace of mind. I will send you a print of it next Monday, let’s say: as a special birthday gift from me. Otherwise there will be candy or something too, per slow sea route, but a light package like this can be send through the air.

In his book The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher Bruno Ernst defines three main themes in Escher’s work. Each of them he devides into three categories.
In an overview this looks like this:

1. Spatial structure
With categories:

  1. Landscape prints (ie Castrovalva)
  2. Interpenetration of different worlds (bv Hand with reflecting sphere)
  3. Abstract, mathematical solids (bv Tetrahedral planetoid)

2. Flat surface structure
With categories:

  1. Metamorphoses (bv Development II)
  2. Cycles (bv Reptiles)
  3. Approaches to infinity (bv Circle Limit IV)

3. Pictorial representation of the relationship between space and flat surface
With categories:

  1. The essence of representation (bv Dragon)
  2. Perspective (bv Other world)
  3. Impossible figures (bv Belvedère)

In addition to this thematic classification, Ernst also made a chronological one:

1922-1937: Landscape Period
1937-1945: Metamorphoses Period
1946-1956: Period of perspective prints
1956-1970: Period of Approaches to infinity

This is not a defining format. The different themes occur in different periods and in each period Escher paid attention to several themes at the same time. But it’s a workable starting point for analyzing his work. Depth is a print that belongs to the theme ‘Pictorial representation of the relationship between space and flat surface‘, and to the category ‘Perspective‘. Chronologically it falls into ‘1946-1956: Period of perspective prints.’
The print comes from the end of that period, but in fact Depth has a very traditional approach to perspective. He suggests the endlessness of space by putting the fish on three axes that adhere nicely to the laws of perspective. He did something similar in Cubic Space Division. In a print like High and Low, the highlight of this period, he juggles with vanishing points and converging curves. In the letter to Arthur, Escher explains how he has tried to strengthen the depth effect in Depth:

I fear that your appreciation for the result achieved will be small. In order to mitigate a devastating judgment, please hear the following: as a motive I could only use a very simplified form of a fish, more of a symbol than a real fish, because the “thing” repeats itself about eighty times, each time from a slightly different angle. I tried to suggest the intended depth effect in all sorts of “ways”; every way in itself had to be examined professionally and had to be accessible. At the risk of boring you, let me follow with some methods on how to suggest depth.

  1. Contours. The thickness of the contours decreases as the distance increases.
  2. A network of lines. Each fish is, in principle, formed from the same amount of lines (for example, on average thirty-two curved hatchets fill the spindle-shaped body).
  3. Rhythmic placement of each fish at the intersections of a cubic three-axis system. To draw extra attention to that three-axis system (I first made desperate attempts to arrive at a less common division of space, for example the tetra-octahedral possibility and others, all of which are too unusual for an untrained observer to evoke a strong suggestion), I accentuated in each animal those three axes: as a spatial cross form. This creates a nice series (a lot of them) of three or four obliquely placed objects; you can see the same shortening in the trees of a forest planted according to square, rectangle, or other method.
  4. The color of the “black” plank (actually dark brown) is “full” only in the front fish, ie as dark as possible at the given strength of color mixing. By pressing less hard as the distance increases, the color becomes less full; the same result is achieved by multiplying fine hatchings to the back, not in print, but in the engraving itself.
  5. The two colors. Near a “warm”, far away a “cold”. So: as the depth increases, the warmth decreases and the cold color increases.

There might be more systematicities or systematizations, but this is quite enough I would say. Can such a methodically designed case still be considered “art”? For that you should first know what art is, and I do not know.

In his Escherbiography biographer Ernst Hazeu notes that Depth is a reference to the war. On January 14, 1945, Escher had started a war diary. Inspired by the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by the poet P.C. Boutens, he wrote 360 hexameters about his experiences. On January 19 he writes about the ‘ever rising rumble in the sky’, the ‘devilish thundering threats’ and the ‘invisible birds of vengeance’ that will drop their ‘murder weapons’. Not here, not aimed at you but ‘further, much further’ they will unleash their ‘death, destruction and mutilation’ causing cargo.
Depth would be a reference to the many planes that traversed the airspace during the war. German Doerniers and Junkers who ascended and landed from the nearby airport Soesterberg. And the English Lancasters, Halifaxes and Liberators on their way to Germany. These birds of vengeance with their deadly load.


Study for Depth, drawing in black and red pencil on transparant paper, 1955
Study for Depth, drawing in black and red pencil on transparant paper, 1955

Study for Depth, drawing on transparant paper, 1955
M.C. Escher, Depth, wood engraving and woodcut in brown-grey, grey-green and dark brown, printed from three blocks, October 1955 (detail)

More Escher today