Can Art Teach Us About Relativity and Reality?

The Genius in M.C. Escher’s Art

Joshua Clements


Photographer: Hans Peters (ANEFO) / CC0 (Wikimedia Commons)

M. C. Escher, known for his blending of figures and shapes, often used mathematical forms and concepts in his art.

His seamless application of what is impossible in nature is unequaled. To the average person, his unique perspective may seem overwhelming.

His work Relativity, a lithographic piece completed at the end of 1953, upset the traditional interpretation of gravitational position. What is up? What is down? Who knows. Surely not the people within the piece.

In an almost cyclic nature, the viewer can become lost in the maze of staircases and landings. Escher’s use of arches and keystones creates the illusion of groin vaults and balconies.

Escher employed shading with incredible finesse to illustrate depth within this composition. Without it, we would not have a true perspective of the illusion of 3-D.

The stairs seem to jut forth from the page, begging the viewer to take a step. The question arises as to which direction you would be walking.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity states that space and time are connected on a continuum, much like this piece of art. This continuum is often depicted in 3-D and time is seen as the fourth dimension. This perspective can create a spiral-like vortex to the viewer.

If you focus on the center of the piece, you can almost sense this winding of the different scenes represented in the image.

Perhaps Relativity could illustrate the popular theory to an aspiring physicist who is having trouble understanding the concept. Or, perhaps it might be a simple way of giving it visualization to the average person.

Something else to consider is the people in the work are faceless. Could this mean that we are walking daily in a cycle unknown to us?

Take a look at the topmost staircase. One person appears to be walking up while the other is stepping down.

The question arising from this observation is, how often do we have no sense of direction in our lives? Do we pass others with no conscious thought of where they are headed, and what lies ahead for us?

Maybe what Escher wanted to portray is the idea that our lives do not necessarily move in linear motion, but rather a circular one.

This artwork can be as deep as you can mentally wander or as simple as the smile you make imagining the stroll through it.

Read into it what you wish, Escher was a genius. He might have understood how relativity works better than some in the scientific world.

Who knows. Perhaps the greatest theories of man lie dormant on a staircase leading to nowhere.



Joshua Clements

Writer, Martial Artist, and student of Philosophy and Communication. You can see more of my work at and