In October 1952, M.C. Escher created a series of woodcuts on the subject of the four elements. It was a commissioned work for collector and graphic art fanatic Eugène Strens and his wife Willy. The prints feature the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. For each design, he highlighted one of these elements on a vignette sent by the Strens couple as a New Year’s greeting. The image was accompanied by their names and the greeting ‘Felicitas’ (Latin for ‘happiness’) along with the coming year. For the tessellations with ants, birds, fish and demons, Escher was able to fall back on his notebooks, but each of these four prints is still slightly different from the drawings he based them on.
Eugène Strens was a great lover of this form of applied graphic art and his passion for collecting led to what was then the largest private collection of bookplates in the world. His collection includes copies of celebrities like Dvořák and Stravinsky, heads of state like Queen Mother Emma and Egyptian King Farouk, as well as the dictators Mussolini and Hitler. Besides collecting bookplates, he also promoted himself as a commissioning party. On numerous occasions, Strens commissioned artists to design bookplates for him. He adopted a highly critical stance in that process and was not shy about correcting artists and steering the design in a direction he liked. The collection would grow to some 120,000 bookplates and occasional graphic works, 15 metres of archival material and 32 metres of reference books. In 1995, the entire collection was acquired by Museum Meermanno (now House of the Book) in The Hague.
Besides graphic art, mathematics was also a great passion for Eugène Strens. Especially mathematical puzzles. It was a love he shared with Martin Gardner. As Gardner in turn was a great lover of M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist forms a bridge between the Dutch collector and the American mathematician. Strens’s collection of mathematics books ended up at the University of Calgary in Canada. There, a special conference on recreational mathematics was held in August 1986 to celebrate the creation of the Strens Collection. Under the title The Lighter Side of Mathematics: Proceedings of the Eugène Strens Memorial Conference on Recreational Mathematics and Its History, a report was also published in book form, featuring a tessellation by M.C. Escher on the cover. Strens’s interest in mathematics naturally drew him to chess. Over the years, he amassed a collection of over 1,000 books on chess problems.
‘The system of Fire is based solely on glide reflection; in Water, a rotation around a twofold axis, located in the centre of the square, occurs, i.e. all the blue fish are congruent “en bloc” with the brown; Air is a shifting system, in which neither axes nor reflection occurs. The first sketch (“Earth”), which I showed you earlier, is based on another system: in it, there are twofold and fourfold axes.’
This is interesting information for the viewer and those interested in mathematics can delve into these forms of mirroring and the interplay with axes. But even without that information, you can enjoy this beautiful series of prints made for perhaps the most avid print collector the Netherlands has ever known.
[*] Uit de boeken van Eugène Strens, de verzameling Strens in het Museum van het Boek, Walburg pers, 1995, page 62
[**] Uit de boeken van Eugène Strens, de verzameling Strens in het Museum van het Boek, Walburg pers, 1995, page 21
[***] Uit de boeken van Eugène Strens, de verzameling Strens in het Museum van het Boek, Walburg pers, 1995, page 42