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Reptiles in wartime

Despite the atrocities of war, some kind of optimism took hold of Escher at the end of February 1943. It was fuelled by nature. On 20 February he wrote in his diary: ‘two butterflies and lots of snowdrops around farmers gardens’. On the 22 February he jotted down: ‘first song of the blackbird’. On 3 March 1943 he even started working on a new print. For this lithograph, Reptiles, he did have to borrow a stone. That is why only 30 copies were printed*.

On 19 August 1960 he gave a lecture in Cambridge, during which he said of this print:

‘On the page of an opened sketchbook a mosaic of reptiles can be seen, drawn in three colours. Now let them prove themselves to be living creatures. One of them extends his paw out over the edge of the sketchbook, frees himself fully and starts on his path of life. First he climbs onto a book, walks further up across a smooth triangle and finally reaches the summit on the horizontal plane of a dodecahedron. He has a breather, tired but satisfied, and he moves down again. Back to the surface, the ‘flat lands’, in which he resumes his position as a symmetrical figure. I was later told that this story perfectly sums up the theory of reincarnation.’

The reference to reincarnation must have brought a smile to his face, as he always laughed about other people’s interpretations. He also listened in amusement when people stated that the word ‘Job’ on the packet in the bottom left was a reference to the Book of Job in the Bible. Nothing was further from the truth. Escher had lived in Belgium for several years and Job was a popular brand of cigarette paper there.

Because he could not print a lithograph himself, he stayed at his printer Dieperink in Amsterdam for a few days. To his friend Bas Kist he wrote that he had to do ‘a lot of tinkering’ on the stone ‘before a definitive set of copies’ could be produced**.

Regular division drawing nr 25
Regular division drawing nr 25 (with section turned 120 degrees)

Escher himself called what the reptiles are freeing themselves from ‘a sketchbook’, but it is of course one of his own design sketchbooks. In 1939 he created Regular division drawing nr 25, featuring these reptiles. What is remarkable and interesting about this periodic drawing is the presence of three different rotation points, where three heads meet and three ‘knees’ meet. If you copy the figure onto transparent paper and put a pin through both pieces of paper, in one of these rotation points, you can turn the transparent one 120 degrees and the figures will cover the ones below completely.
M.C. Escher, Development II, woodcut in brown, grey-green and black, printed from three blocks, February 1939
M.C. Escher, Metamorphosis II, woodcut in black, green and brown, printed from twenty blocks, on three combined sheets, November 1939 - March 1940

Escher would use these reptiles later on for the woodcuts Development II, Metamorphosis II and Metamorphosis III. The visible regular hexagons in this drawing helped him when it came to creating the lizards for Development II and the panel in Metamorphosis II, which features lizards turning into hexagons.

This print was used as an album cover for the band Mott the Hoople. Read this story for more examples of the ‘creative’ uses of Escher’s work. The cover is also discussed in the connection between Escher and the Rolling Stones.

[*] and [**] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 282-283

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