To create confusion. That was what God had in mind when he made the people who were building a tower to heaven all speak different languages. In no time at all, it was chaos, and the construction was stopped immediately. If you can no longer talk to each other, how can you continue to build together at such a height?
In 1928, M.C. Escher produced a print of a building that symbolises the confusion between people, but which Escher’s approach makes even more alienating: the Tower of Babel. Escher would go on to become world-famous for his graphic art brimming with optical illusions, in which he defied gravity, created endless staircases and transformed birds into fish. Impossible constructions have an important place in his later prints, but in 1928 they are not yet a fixed theme. His early work consists mainly of early woodcuts of people and unparalleled depictions of nature, in which he explores his talent for the graphic arts. In the prints from the beginning of his career, he occasionally explored biblical themes too. For instance, he depicted Adam and Eve in Paradise, and Escher enjoyed some success with his series of the Six Days of Creation from 1926.
Two years after the Days of Creation series came another biblical print: Tower of Babel. Central to this large, imposing woodcut is a high tower, which we see from an extreme bird’s-eye view. In the story in Genesis 11:1-9, the Babylonians build this tall building that is supposed to reach to the sky. God is not pleased with this and wants to punish their hubris. He causes the builders to suddenly speak different languages, so that they can no longer work together. According to the biblical story, this is also the moment when people spread all over the world because of the different languages they speak. The tower itself is named Babel, which can be translated as ‘confusion’. A fitting name for the chaotic scene that must have taken place on the gigantic structure, and for the far-reaching consequences of this newly created division.
When Escher wrote an analysis about the woodcut Tower of Babel in 1959, his first sentence immediately referred to the confusion of tongues. Escher’s preference for this form of disorder comes as no great surprise. A large, impossible building that causes confusion: this sounds like the ideal subject for the printmaker. In later prints such as Waterfall (1961), Belvedere (1958) and Relativity (1953), the amazement at the impracticability of structures that Escher himself devised is key. By then, the artist was much further along in his artistic development, and he had already been approaching architecture with a healthy dose of imagination for many years. In his younger years, Escher briefly studied architecture at the insistence of his parents. Although this did not turn out to be a great success for him, his fascination with the creation of buildings continues to recur in his work, albeit with more imagination than during his studies. He reflects on his student days in an interview in 1968:
“And I never had any desire to build houses. But I did like mad houses.”
The Tower of Babel is, as it were, a way station in his fascination with impossible buildings. The height of the construction makes it an almost impossible building, but it is possible as an image. As a viewer, it doesn’t occur to you that you might not be able to stand on it. The architecture of Escher’s version of the tower is not innovative in itself, but with his print he really adds something to a subject often depicted in art history. In other works of art, such as the famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the view of the tower is usually straight on. The Tower of Babel is also commonly depicted from below. In his print, Escher takes a radically different approach. By opting for the extreme bird’s-eye view, we are looking down on the tower from far above. This makes it very easy to spot the confusion that exists among the black and white figures. On the top floor of the tower, the figures stand with their hands spread, confused by what has just happened. Two layers down, little men lie on their bellies, looking down from a great height, confused. In this state of confusion, no one can continue what they were doing. As spectators, we look on helplessly. Or are we, the viewers, actually God, who deliberately brought about this chaos? Escher does not answer this question: he leaves it open to the interpretation of the viewer.