Artist profile: M.C. Escher – Tessellations to infinity

Artist profile: M.C. Escher – Tessellations to infinity

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

 

If you’re like me, you probably had to do a tessellation project in high school. (Mine was jellyfish.) My project was for math class because M.C. Escher’s tessellations are rooted in mathematical principals. Escher kept notes about the math he needed to use in a sketchbook he titled Regelmatige vlakverdeling in asymmetrische congruente veelhoeken (“Regular division of the plane with asymmetric congruent polygons”).

The seed for Escher’s tessellations was first planted when he visited Italy and Spain in 1922. The Moorish architecture in those countries, with their mathematically-precise repeating tile patterns, fascinated the young artist.

sketch from his trip to the Alhambra (1936)
sketch from his trip to the Alhambra (1936)

He first experimented with tessellations in 1922 with Eight Heads, which can be viewed either right side up or upside down. This, and his other works, shows that Escher went beyond just dividing the plane – he played with the interiors of the divisions as well, making them into recognizable animals and people.

Eight Heads (1922)
Eight Heads (1922)

The sketch below, which looks most like those projects we did in high school, is from 1926 or 1927 and marks the beginning of Escher’s trademark tessellations. The figures are not as individualized as Eight Heads.

Tessellation practice (1926 or 1927)
Tessellation practice (1926 or 1927)

I think that if Escher had just kept doing regular tessellations he would have been considered unique. But again, Escher didn’t just stop. He pushed tessellations further by putting them in circles, gradually (and mathematically) shrinking the size of elements, transforming the elements, and creating looping cycles.

Circle Limit I (1958)
Circle Limit I (1958)
Fish and Scales (1959)
Fish and Scales (1959)
Regular division of the plane I (1957)
Regular division of the plane I (1957)
Cycle (1938)
Cycle (1938)

The last Escher work I would like to present is Metamorphosis II, split in half. I saw this in person and it takes up a lot of space.

Metamorphosis II (1939-40)
Metamorphosis II (1939-40)

You’ve probably noticed that Escher likes to depict nature and animals. My favorite sections from Metamorphosis II are below – when the honeycomb turns into bees and when the tower from the city doubles as a chess piece. These kind of brilliant details are delightful. (Incidentally, these details are parts of the artwork that don’t actually involve tessellations.)

detail from Metamorphosis II
detail from Metamorphosis II

detail from Metamorphosis II
detail from Metamorphosis II

Thank you so much for reading my posts about Escher. It was very difficult to choose what to include, both information-wise and artwork-wise, because Escher was a long-lived and productive artist – which is very good!

Below are the resources I used and galleries that have more (and bigger) images – please visit them all!

Other parts in the M.C. Escher artist profile series
Introduction
Traditional
Impossible perspective

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