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Flying envelopes

For commercial assignments, Escher almost always chose subjects and designs that he had tried before. Commissions were necessary evils and rarely inspired him. Not that this was a real problem. Clients chose Escher because they were familiar with his work and were keen to see certain aspects of it feature in the end product. The commission that Escher received in the summer of 1956 was a little different. In September he produced a New Year’s card for the PTT (Dutch postal service), for which he had drawn the motif in one of his notebooks with tessellations shortly before. The design, which features winged envelopes, is clearly intended for the client. For his tessellations, Escher always used living objects, such as birds, fish, insects and other critters. In that sense, the envelope was an anomaly. But by giving them wings he was nevertheless imbuing them with an animal-like quality.

M.C. Escher, New Year's greeting card P.T.T., wood engraving, September 1956
M.C. Escher, Metamorphosis III, woodcut, 1967-1968. Detail with envelopes

Six perfectly contiguous envelopes form a hexagonal centre. As the other envelopes in the rows around it move further from that centre, they become more detached from the grid, until they reach the edge and fly off into the outside world. His monogram dovetails with the design, the letters MCE being given small wings too.

When Escher was asked by the PTT in June 1967 to build on his Metamorphosis II for a mural in the post office in The Hague, he had to come up with a three-metre extension. The use of earlier designs was therefore a logical move. As he put it himself:

‘Otherwise the completion of the commission would have taken much longer. These regular divisions of the plane don’t just magically appear’.

Nevertheless, he mused that it would not be easy:

‘It will be no mean feat. I am curious to see whether it will turn out the way I can visualise it now, vaguely, in my mind’s eye’.

He made a long connecting piece featuring the flying fish and boats that he had designed for the column in the building of the ‘Provinciale Waterstaat’ in Haarlem. The motif with the winged envelopes from the New Year’s card featured again too, albeit in a slightly modified form. It is not known whether the client realised in 1967 that Escher had already used the envelopes 11 years earlier. But even so, Escher could have pointed out that this reuse of motifs was completely normal for him. It was something he did in his free work too. The notebooks with the drawn tessellations in particular were a source of inspiration for his graphic work.

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