On November 24, 1960, the writer’s workshop Oulipo was founded. It stands for ‘Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle‘ or the ‘Workplace for Possible Literature‘. It is a loosely formed group of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who produce literary works that are subject to certain conditions or restrictions. The use of this type of restriction was not new (writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Ferdinand de Saussure and Gertrude Stein already worked with it), but it is the first time that it has been done in an organized manner. Think of avoiding certain letters and words or developing a completely new structure. For example, Oulipo devised the S + 7 method: from a random dictionary, a noun was replaced by the seventh noun that followed. Other techniques were the snowball (a poem with a word on each line and on each new line the word is always 1 letter longer) and the palindrome (a text that can be read from front to back as well as back to front). They invented new techniques, but also worked to revitalize obsolete language constructions such as the anagram, zerogram, the rondo and the quatrain.
This experimenting led to bizarre but also stimulating texts. Oulipo clearly has a playful side but the limitations also serve to sharpen the inspiration and craftsmanship of the authors. Well-known Oulipians were Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais and Georges Perec. In 1969 the latter published a novel in which no ‘e’ occurs: La Disparition. To compensate, he also wrote a novel in which the ‘e’ is the only vowel that occurs: Les Revenentes. Oulipians were also active in Italy (Italo Calvino) and the Netherlands (Battus, or Hugo Brandt Corstius and Rudy Kousbroek). The Dutch equivalent of Oulipian literature was called ‘Opperland literature‘ by Battus. Although the peak of Oulipo was in the sixties and seventies, the collective is still active. Check oulipo.net for an overview of publications, exhibitions, theater performances, reading nights and workshops.
But what is the link with Escher? In 1965 the graphic artist was appointed honorary member of this group. It was a direct result of Escher’s friendship with the French artist and professor Albert Flocon. Flocon ensured that his prints were published in Paris and he also brought Escher into contact with Oulipo. The members of the group combined playing with games and thus had a lot in common with Escher. That the members of Oulipo and Escher were all fascinated by Lewis Carroll and Bach made Escher’s honorary membership even more self-evident. The playful element can easily be seen in a drawing like the one above. The birds are arranged in a tight pattern of glide reflections but Escher also affords himself a frivolity. It seems that all birds are the same, except for their color. But those who look closely at the wings will see that this is not the case.
There is another connection. The American science journalist, master puzzle maker and ‘mathemagician’ Martin Gardner introduced Oulipo in the US, when he discussed the group in his column in Scientific American of February 1977. In April 1961 he wrote his column on the mathematician H.S.M. Coxeter. The reason was the publication of his An Introduction to Geometry, a book in which Escher played a prominent role. On the cover of the April issue is the colored version of the drawing seen above. In April 1966 his complete column was dedicated to the graphic artist. In the early sixties the two had already corresponded about the mathematical elements in Escher’s work and about their fascination with Lewis Carroll. Escher was in turn already familiar with The Annotated Alice, the famous book by Gardner on Carroll. He had received that book from Coxeter, illustrating how everything is related here. It shows once again that Escher was not the loner he was sometimes seen as. Only his circles moved more towards mathematics, science and literature than those of art.