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International Congress of Mathematicians 1954

On 2 September 1954, the International Congress of Mathematicians opened in Amsterdam. This is the largest mathematical conference in the world, held once every four years, at which the famous Fields medal is awarded. On the initiative of the ICM, an extensive solo exhibition with Escher’s work was held in the Stedelijk Museum. The organising committee chaired by Amsterdam professor of Mathematics N.G. de Bruijn put Escher on a pedestal as a unique link between art and mathematics.

The congress and the exhibition proved to be a boon for Escher in terms of putting him in contact with mathematicians. Congress attendees visited the exhibition in droves and were deeply impressed by it. Here, British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose and British-Canadian mathematician Donald Coxeter first came into contact with Escher’s work. Escher would maintain a warm contact with both and the artist and the mathematicians would continue to inspire each other. Coxeter gave Escher the idea for his circle limits. After seeing Relativity at the exhibition, Penrose, together with his father Lionel Penrose, published an article on impossible figures. The exchange of ideas between Escher and the Penroses would lead to the prints Waterfall and Ascending and Descending. Like Escher, Penrose had been fascinated by tessellations throughout his career

In the preface to the catalogue, De Bruijn wrote about the playfulness with which Escher employed mathematics, thereby getting to the heart of what fascinates mathematicians in their profession. In the catalogue, Escher himself wrote candidly (for the first time) about his own motives and his position as an artist. This was also the first time he labelled himself as an artist. During the congress, he delivered a highly successful speech. The congress and the exhibition provided him with many new interested buyers. But more importantly, they brought him friends in the mathematical community.

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