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Playing with puzzles

‘I used to love Grimms’ fairy tales a lot. As a child, even as a boy, I was very moved by them. Now I’m rereading The Hobbit, by Tolkien, the journey of those dwarfs. It’s so far removed from reality. Why (gaze stripped of all playfulness) do we have to endure this miserable reality all the time? Why can’t we just play?’

Day and Night (1938) puzzle. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0). Wonderlane
Belvédère (1958) puzzle

Escher said this in the long interview with journalist Bibeb, printed in weekly magazine Vrij Nederland on 20 April 1968. He was known to many as a serious and straightforward artist, but this quote once again makes things less clear-cut. Yes, he made art that had to be experienced with the head as much as with the heart, but the element of play was just as important. He looked at the world with wonder, like a child absorbed in a game. He could spend weeks, even months, fleshing out a playful idea for a print. Like a puzzle that slowly reveals its secret. When he was working on a print, he would forget the world around him. It is therefore unsurprising that doing puzzles was so popular again in this era. It was a way to forget the real world and to submerge oneself in a completely different one.

His tessellations are of course the ultimate puzzles, jigsaws comprising pieces that he first had to come up with himself. In the same interview, he said:

‘Putting animals together, playing around until they fill the surface together, is something that others have not done. I had to do it all myself, it takes effort, patience, time. And it gets harder as you get older’.

And in his book The Regular Division of the Plane, which was published by the De Roos foundation in Utrecht in 1958, he says:

‘Of all living creatures, as experience has shown me, the silhouettes of hovering birds and fish are the forms that lend themselves most readily to playing the tessellation game’.

Play recurs in manifold ways in his life and work, be this through devising interlinking animal figures, playing with illusions on a flat surface, playing with his children, and playing with his thoughts. As a child he often played word association games, connecting two completely random words by coming up with intermediate steps*.

Many years later he made the leap from word associations to shape associations by blending figures in his first Metamorphosis. Once he was a father himself, he often read to his children. Grimms’ and Andersen’s fairy tales were favourites. As was a book from his own childhood, which contained a story that served as the basis for his 1956 print Castle in the Air. He also read stories from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, from Winnie the Pooh, Nils Holgersson, Jules Verne, and Dik Trom**. He also built mazes and marble runs for them in their home in Rome***.

Reptiles (1943) puzzle
Convex and Concave (1955) puzzle

A final quote from the interview:

Are you very different now to how you used to be?
‘No, I don’t think I’m older at all. I stay young. I don’t grow up. The little child of the past is in me, and also the keenness of mind are from the age of seventeen to twenty’.

In short, doing puzzles with Escher in these times is a perfectly acceptable pastime. Play is not a waste of time, but important for people. Lose yourself in the thousand pieces of Reptiles, Waterfall, Convex and Concave, Day and Night, Three Worlds or Hand with Reflecting Sphere and experience something of what it must have been like for Escher to piece together his print.

[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 25
[**] and [***] M.C. Escher, His Life and Complete Graphic Work, edited by J.L. Locher, Abradale Press, 1982, page 44-46

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