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Sky and Water I

Artist: M.C Escher
Created: 1938
Dimensions (cm): 50.0 x 48.9
Format: Woodcut on Japan paper
Location: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada



M. C. Escher is one of the 20th Century's most stylistically-recognizable artists. Sky and Water is among his most famous and most meaningful works.

Sky and Water utilizes one of Escher's best-known motifs, that of the metamorphosis. Both birds and fish, as they approach the center of the frame, become more and more simplified, until, when they meet, they are made of only single contour lines separating light and dark. The figures are flat, lacking liveliness and definition. The further from the center, the more defined the fish and birds become. The birds become free and fly away as the fish dissolve into sky; the fish sink into the dark depths and swim, as the birds melt into water.

Escher used the metamorphosis motif many times, but the forms he chose for this piece deliver a particularly clear message to the viewer. The fish and birds are turned into air and water via the metamorphosis, thus creating a powerful metaphor for the inseparability of life from the elements it needs to survive, and the symbiotic nature of Earth's ecosystems.

Escher originally insisted that at the extreme top and bottom of this piece, the background is reduced to nothing, an ideal line as he put it. Later, after challenges from critics, he conceded that Sky and Water, like his other metamorphosis pieces, does indeed have a background. The figures and the background simply alternate functions, the point of the switch being the central dividing line: the white background transforms into the fish, at which point the birds transform into a black background.

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