Many people regard Escher as the master of illusions. A wizard on paper who tricks you with his impossible constructions and wondrous metamorphoses. What he creates cannot exist. Even if you see it with your own eyes. Yet that is not always the case. Escher was indeed fascinated by the illusions that the flat surface could evoke, but sometimes he just wanted to show the beauty in reality. Three Worlds is one of the finest examples of this.
The print is the result of one of the many walks Escher took in the woods around his home town of Baarn. He enjoyed the silence and the beauty of nature. He believed that silence and beauty were best illustrated by the puddles and pools he passed during his walks. Only when it is really still does the water surface reflect nature in perfect symmetry. Water has the unique property of being simultaneously transparent and reflective.* Three Worlds is the last of three prints in which the world is reflected in water. The other two are Rippled Surface and Puddle. The reflective water surfaces he saw during his walks are echoed by the many other mirrors in his oeuvre. Flat mirrors, convex mirrors, mirrors in which he himself can be seen, mirrors that show a street or the sky, mirrors that reflect reality and mirrors that seem like passages to another world. The reflective surface in Three Worlds ostensibly shows nothing more than reality. Yet it is a reality that consists of three worlds. A world above the water (the three trees), a world on the water (the leaves) and a world in the water (the fish).**
However simple this lithograph might first appear, it is of course anything but. Three Worlds is the result of an extensive thought process, many sketches and a masterful control of the craft. Escher drew the fish several times, rotating it in different ways until he was satisfied. It is an imagined fish resembling a Japanese ornamental carp. You will not find them in puddles in the forest. Escher was searching for an archetype, a fish that is immediately recognisable as ‘fish’ and as a denizen of this world under the water’s surface. In that regard, the trees — which are beyond our field of vision yet still show up within it — were simpler. Escher shows their contours without leaves and without recognisable details. These too are archetypes. The leaves accentuate the water’s surface, a phenomenon he reinforces by giving each leaf a shaded edge that makes them seem to float on the water. They have recently fallen and will eventually disappear into the deep, into the other world.
The three prints that Escher produced on the reflections in the forest serve to illustrate his perspective on the world. He sees beauty in simplicity and has immense admiration for nature. Hence the prints also demonstrate that he is not the cold mathematician that some people take him to be and that the world of illusions was certainly not the only one for him.
[*] and [**] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, pp. 340-343.