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Interpretation of Escher's Waterfall

Updated on July 7, 2017

Every thinking mind is aware of the inward struggle of man. On the outside, we perform as expected, while inwardly we are engaged in an upward battle. Whatever it is we are fighting against, we try to go it alone, keeping the appearance of normalcy, of everything being okay. All around us, life goes on as usual. It is expected, and everyone plays along, as if there is some unwritten code requiring us to keep the charade in motion.

Mr. Johnson was my ninth grade World Cultures teacher, and I was his son’s babysitter. For Christmas in 1997, he gave me a print of Escher’s lithograph entitled Waterfall. With an oddly knowing grin, he said he thought I would like it. The bell rang before I had a chance to look at it. Later that night, I lay awake in bed wondering how an old guy in suspenders could understand a weird teenage girl so well.

You see, at that time I suffered from a deep depression due to a series of illnesses that, untreated, had caused intense chronic pain since the age of five. Thoughts of death and despair filled my heart and mind almost constantly. But, since my father was a preacher and my mom worked at the high school, I kept it all inside and put on a great show of being “okay.”

By the time I went down for breakfast the next morning, I had found the perfect place for my Waterfall: on the wall next to my “inspiration spot,” the dormer that overlooked a field and had a perfect view of the sunrise and was strewn with notebooks and my multicolored pen collection.

Every evening for months I would stare at that print, trying to decide if there was any incline in the flow of the water as it continued (Was it upward?) without ever seeming to change altitude. I contemplated daily the effort of the wheel, turning and turning, receiving a little help from the water falling down on its rudders but still struggling to push the water back up the channel. At night I would wonder why no one seemed to care. The woman hung her laundry to dry; the man stared beyond the fall to something somewhere out of the picture. Where was the person that the stairs were for - those two small steps leading from a branch of roof to the water itself? Surely someone had to notice that their life source needed maintenance! Was that not what water was, a life source?

This man-made waterfall, like me, was alone. Here we were, as the world continued to function as it should. Yet inside we were crying, fighting to reach our potential, to complete the task that had been assigned to us. Surely someone would take notice. Surely someday someone would come out on that isolated segment of roof, walk up that tiny stairway and realize how weak the current was. Surely someone would lend a hand, tweak the wheel to make its revolving less strenuous, breach the wall to let the water flow downward instead!

Escher’s intention may have only been to capture a scene that was familiar to him, as he did in so many of his other works. Still I believe that he was alluding to the inward conflict in which we all are engaged at some point throughout our lives. Perhaps he, himself, felt the pain of working toward something that seemed unattainable. Whatever the artist’s own experiences may have been, this lithograph is a compelling depiction of the human endeavor to maintain an image of utility while facing overwhelming odds.


Escher, M.C. (1961). [Waterfall 1961 Lithograph]. Picture Gallery “Recognition and success 1955-1972”. Retrieved July 30, 2009, from


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      Kari Poulsen 8 years ago from Ohio

      This is a beautiful read. It is so true that, at times, we go through life struggling inwardly, while to the outside world we look fine. And isn't it wonderful when the day comes that someone notices and we realize that we are not all alone. :D