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Escher’s palm trees

It is a tropical summer in the Netherlands and what could be more tropical than a palm tree? Certainly, Maurits Cornelis Escher saw something very special in this iconic tree. He was never specific about what he saw, but it is striking how often it recurs in his work. The first of these was created in July 1923—a stylised palm tree with fronds like parasols, hanging bunches of palm fruits, the scaly trunk and a halo that seems to surround the tree.

In March 1926 he used a very similar palm tree as the centre of his print The Sixth Day of Creation, which features Adam and Eve in Paradise. In 1931 he again produced a palm tree, as part of his Emblemata series, and in 1933 he created a fourth one.

M.C. Escher, The Sixth Day of the Creation, woodcut, March 1926
M.C. Escher, Palm Tree (VI Emblemata), woodcut, between March and June 1931

There are also a number of drawings and preliminary studies in which he practices with the tree. But besides the palm tree as a subject, the tree also features several times as a visual element in his graphic work. The tree pops up behind a house near Nunziata, it rises into the frame next to the house in Dusk (Rome), it adorns the boulevard in Calvi, Corsica and two are present in his famous print Up and Down. The emblem he created for restaurant Insulinde includes several small palm trees, and palm trees constitute a recognisable element in his beautiful fictional populated worlds in Double Planetoid and Tetrahedral Planetoid, which lends these planets an earthlike quality.

It is probable that it was the exotic character of the tree that appealed to him. There were no palm trees in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with aloe, a fleshy plant with pointed leaves which was perhaps even more exotic. He depicted it several times too, like in Tropea, Pentedatillo and Belvedere. In the version from 1933 both plants are combined. Two aloe plants flank the palm tree, lending the print not only something of the wild and natural, but also something very symmetrical and stylised. Escher must have felt drawn to the palm tree’s symmetry.

M.C. Escher, House in the Lava near Nunziata, Sicily, lithograph, August 1936
detail

M.C. Escher, Palm near Ravello, ink on paper, 2 April 1923
detail

M.C. Escher, Dusk (Rome), mezzotint (second state), May 1946
M.C. Escher, Emblem for Restaurant Insulinde, The Hague, woodcut in reddish brown, April 1944

M.C. Escher, Calvi (: the Fishing Town [Seen] from the Citadel), Corsica, wood engraving, December 1933
detail

M.C. Escher, Double Planetoid (Double Planet), wood engraving in green, dark blue, black and white, printed from four blocks, December 1949
detail (rotated)

M.C. Escher, Tetrahedral Planetoid (Tetrahedral Planet), woodcut in green and black, printed from two blocks, April 1954
detail (rotated)

detail
detail

In the summer of 1923, Maurits met Jetta Umiker in Ravello. After they parted each other’s company at the end of that summer and kept in touch by writing letters, they met again in Rome in the spring of 1924. These photos show them on the Gianicolo hill, on which there is a park that overlooks the city. The couple are in love, but in these photos Maurits also appears to be paying close attention to the palm trees and aloe plants in the park. The melancholic Jetta poses for her future husband.
Gianiculo, 2 February 1924
Gianiculo, 17 March 1924

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