Much of M.C. Escher's graphic work explores the boundaries between the concrete and the abstract, between representation and pattern, depth and surface, form and ground. His three 'Metamorphoses' form perhaps the most impressive examples of this fascination, with their cyclical designs that morph back and forth between abstract tesselations and 'individualized' birds, fish and even entire cities escaping from the straightjacket of their origin, only to change again into something else.
Unlike Mondrian, whose work shows a clear journey from the concrete into the abstract, Escher remained in this middle territory and always kept the link to the representational world intact, even if his worlds got progressively more impossible. It gave his work an accessibility that was long frowned upon in the art world.
But like Mondrian's trees, there are a few of Escher's works that are poised exactly - and magically - between the concrete and the abstract. Interestingly, they all involve reflections of trees.
One example is 'Puddle' ('Modderplas', 1952), a woodcut depicting in perfect balance two realities: a puddle on a muddy road, along with tracks from a car, a bicycle and a pedestrian; and the reflection of trees and the sky. The full moon adds a subtle element of Japanese tranquility.
For one of the two realities in this work Escher reused an older woodcut: the reflected trees are from 'Calvi Corsica' (1933), a more conventional landscape piece whose elaborate silhouetted trees are contrasted with a sunny vista of a waterside town in the background. By extracting these trees and inserting them in the reflection of 'Puddle', they become two-dimensional patterns, still recognizable as upside-down trees but 'cut out' of reality in the strange mirroring shape of the puddle.
A step further is the lithograph 'Three Worlds' ('Drie werelden', 1955), which shows the mirror surface of a pond where three realities coincide: the water's surface with floating leaves, the pond itself with a large fish beneath its surface, and the reflection of trees and the sky.
Here, too, the balance between the three worlds is such that the eye is free to focus on any one at a time, or 'unfocus' and take it all in at once as an abstract composition. The fish, in particular, serves as a visual anchor to the representational world. However, it is a subtle, slightly blurry and mysterious shape beneath the water’s surface and easily glanced over.
The third example is also the earliest, the linocut 'Rippled Surface' ('Rimpeling', 1950), showing again the reflection of trees and a full moon in water, with two concentric ripples disturbing the reflection to create strange zigzag patterns.
Like 'Puddle', it shows two realities: the water surface and the reflected trees. But here the water is not framed by the road, as in 'Puddle', nor is there anything visible on or below the surface, as in 'Three Worlds'. The water is only visible in the ephemeral ripples on its surface. In other words, the one reality only exists in its disturbance of the other.
In its simplicity, 'Rippled Surface' accomplishes most intensely the aim of extracting an abstract image out of a still recognizable reality. Its effect is both of contemplative stillness - again with an Oriental atmosphere - and of strangeness and wonder.
In his essay 'Approaches to Infinity' ('Oneindigheidsbenaderingen', 1959), Escher talks of his sense of wonder at the natural laws that shape our world. Specifically he talks of crystals "growing in the earth's crust", but it equally applies to such a simple thing as the complex patterns created by ripples on a surface of water reflecting trees...
There is something in such laws that takes the breath away. They are not discoveries or inventions of the human mind, but exist independently of us. In a moment of clarity, one can at most discover that they are there and take them into account.
For more exploration, WikiPaintings has an impressively complete Escher gallery.