It was a fact of life for Escher that his health deteriorated during the late 1960s. He struggled with it his entire life, but this particular decade was a succession of good and bad spells. During the good spells, he was alert and active; during the bad ones, poor health dominated his life. In the spring of 1969 he had a good spell again and he filled his time with a number of lectures, produced 40 prints of Day and Night (although he thought that this was a waste of his precious time) and devised and created a new print. *
It was working on something new that made him especially happy. In a letter to his son George, he wrote that he was ‘wild with excitement’ about Snakes. In the winter of 1967/1968, he had extended his Metamorphosis II to Metamorphosis III, but the last new print preceding it originated from autumn 1966. He therefore devoted himself wholeheartedly to this new stream of creativity, despite being afflicted by poor health. The development process took a great deal of energy, and he often had to stop work in order to take a break.
Escher created numerous preparatory drawings, showing how he grappled with and relied on the network of rings that both increase and decrease in size. He purchased a book on snakes to use as reference material. The biological subject of the print is the grass snake, a choice that he felt correlated nicely with the final image he wanted to create. But he had a problem when it came to the English name, as he noted in a letter to collector Roosevelt: **
The title is “Ringsnakes”, which does not fit biologically.
The English name for the Dutch ‘ringslang’ is ‘grass snake’ and not ‘ring snake’. The end product has nothing to do with grass, which is why the English name for the print became Snakes.
Snakes features three snakes whirling through a network of large and small interlocking rings. The network of rings is also a ring, and the heads and bodies of the snakes escape from it at 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 o’clock. The heads form a triangle with the point down, the bodies a triangle with the point up. Escher uses three wooden blocks, one for each colour. By printing each block three times around a central point, he creates a continuous circle. In total he prints 12 copies. Because the print is in three colours, and he is using the same blocks for this, he is forced to complete the 12 copies over 108 runs to achieve the desired result.
He wrote about it to his good friend Arthur Loeb: ***
Meanwhile, I am working hard on a new colour woodcut that has to be printed from 3 boards, each filling a sector of 120°, so that I will have to rotate 9 times around a central pin in order to get a complete print. I don’t imagine that this will be “masterpiece” (although we should really pretend to believe this of each new piece of work), but I’m extremely satisfied because my hand doesn’t shake at all, and my eyes are still good enough for such precision work, thanks to a magnifying glass lit up by a circular neon tune (which doesn’t heat the wood!). I’ve been doing this kind of work for over fifty years now and nothing in this strange and frightening world seems more pleasant to me. What more could a person want?
To Bruno Ernst he wrote: ****
It is chain mail with small rings on the edge and also in the middle of a circle, and large rings in between. Snakes are to wind through the largest holes.
He, in turn, was impressed by the result: *****
There is no trace of fatigue, illness or old age. What is noticeable, however, is a greater modesty with regard to the depiction of the infinite. In his earlier prints, Escher pushed himself to the limit: he used a magnifying glass to cut figures smaller than half a millimetre. In Snakes, however, he makes no attempt to go that far until the rings visually disappear into the dense fog of tiny figures. As soon as the suggestion of ever smaller figures is made, he stops.
Ernst raises an interesting point here. From the preliminary studies, it is clear that Escher’s hand was still perfectly capable of handling minute details. In the woodcut, however, he chose not to go that far. He had reached a stage where he realised that it was enough to suggest infinity.
The result reflects themes such as infinity, symmetry and reflection and echoes earlier prints, such as Whirlpools, Sphere Spirals, Knots and Path of Life I, II and III as well as prints in which he used platonic bodies, such as Contrast (Order and Chaos) and Gravity. But it is mainly a variation on his Circle Limits, the ultimate form for infinity that he had discovered more than ten years earlier after contact with the Canadian professor H.S.M. Coxeter. He also creates a variant of the ouroboros, the snake that bites its tail and symbolises infinity and the cyclical nature of things. However, the biting is not depicted here and the cycle is created mainly in the viewer’s mind.
Escher’s body may not have been cooperative, but his hand was steady, and there was nothing wrong with his brainpower or imagination. Given the fanaticism with which he threw himself into the print, he must have known, or at least suspected, that this could well be his last. And that is indeed what it turned out to be. He forges all themes and previous prints into a new form and in Snakes creates something very special and unique. It is a resounding final chord to an exceptional oeuvre.
Unique film material of Snakes is available, showing Escher at work on the print. In the fragment in which he cuts into a wood block, he is working on a proof. One of the final blocks can be seen when he is printing.
Snakes is also part of our Highlights audio guide.