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Flying fish, birds and boats in Haarlem

Of all the themes and subjects on which Escher had thrown himself during his career, the one he was most drawn to was the regular division of the plane. He has done countless experiments to examine the many ways in which a plane could be filled with patterns of geometric shapes. In this process, and this embodies Escher’s great strength, he managed to bend these geometric shapes into recognisable forms. Crudely at first but as he got more skillful at it, the fishes, birds, lizards, beetles, butterflies, horses and other animals and shapes kept getting more refined. The drawings were a form of research but he also drew ideas from them for new work or for commercial assignments.

M.C. Escher, Regular division drawing with flying fish and birds, no. 111, pencil and watercolor on paper, January 1962
M.C. Escher, Regular division drawing with flying fish and boats, no. 112, pencil and watercolor on paper, January 1962

In January 1962 he made four drawings, two of them we show here, of which he immediately knew what he wanted to use them for. Escher had received an assignment from the ‘Verenigde Noord-Hollandse Waterschappen‘ (compare it to the Association of Drainage Authorities in the UK) who wanted to offer a gift to ‘Provinciale Waterstaat Noord-Holland‘. They asked him to make a design for a concrete column in the new head office at the Zijlweg in Haarlem. In 1959 he had already designed columns for the Johanna Westermanschool in The Hague, a project which the government agency probably had noticed. But the approach in Haarlem did differ. For the school, the tessellation he designed was worked out in tiles. In Haarlem the design was painted on the concrete column. It was an assignment that he found both fun and somewhat annoying. In a letter to his son George and his wife Corry he wrote on January 13, 1962:

‘Fun, because they would let me have my own way – maybe – when filling a cylindrical surface; annoying, because they are again disturbing me in creating new work.’

At that time, because of his enormously increased popularity, Escher was very busy making reprints of existing work and preparing and giving lectures. He hardly ever had the time to make new work. This commercial assignment only added to the pressure.

Escher during the official presentation of his design in Haarlem, March 1962

On the drawings he made, several metamorphoses can be seen with animals that depend on water: amphibians, fish, humans, and birds. There are birds and flying fish on the number 111 drawing. Drawing number 112 contains boats and again flying fish. The fish on 112 slightly differ from the ones on 111, giving Escher the opportunity to change a bird into a boat. On 113 are again boats but now interspersed with fish and on 114 he makes a tessellation with fish and frogs. On the final design of the column, he combines the four drawings into a vertical metamorphosis. Looking from the top down, the dark-colored flying birds are shown from drawing 111. They change into light-colored flying fish and – in three steps – these fish pass into the dark-colored boats of 113. Gaining detail in the vertical movement. In the end, a skipper can be seen in the boat and the single sail is shown in more detail. The boat changes back into a light-colored fish. The last animal is the dark-colored frog from 114, which is in the last layer at the base of the column.

The column was located in the large conference room on the ground floor of the building and is painted in three colors: cream, sienna and deep brown/black. It has a wooden base, wherein copper letters this text can be read: ’23 March 1962 Vereniging Noord-Hollandse Waterschappen’. The column stood on a parquet floor with square inlay.

Since the spring of 2013, the column has been placed in the office complex of the ‘Provincie Noord-Holland‘ at Houtplein in Haarlem. There it no longer has a supporting function, it is standing free in the entrance hall. Commissioned by Gerrit Bosch (former curator of the art collection of the ‘Provincie Noord-Holland‘), a film report was made of the process of sawing out, transporting, restoring, transporting and placing the column.

Film made by Marcella Kuiper 

The column is placed in the entrance hall of the 'Provinciehuis', late 2012

When Escher was asked in June 1967 by the P.T.T. to extend his Metamorphosis II as the basis for a mural that was to be brought to the Post Office in The Hague, he went back to a number of drawings and woodcuts he had made in the years before. He made a long section in which, among other things, the flying fish and boats of 112 and the boats and fish from 113 return.

The painted Metamorphosis III in The Hague, with the flying fish and birds in the top left corner
Composite image of a part of drawing 112 (mirrored) and a part of Metamorphosis III with flying fish and boats.

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