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The murals at Tolsteeg cemetery

Contacts had been established earlier that year, but in December 1957 it was officially ratified: by order of Utrecht City Council, Escher was allowed to make a mural for the auditorium of the reception building of Tolsteeg cemetery. In the autumn, he was approached by the municipal council to make a design. The reception building had very recently been renovated and the municipal authorities thought there was room for some aesthetic improvement too. The advisory committee for Visual Arts and Applied Sciences decided to delegate the task to the graphic artist M.C. Escher. He welcomed the assignment and set straight to work.

He wrote about the design in a letter to son Arthur, on November 2, 1957*:

‘I made a drawing with a scale of 1:20 and it seems that the committee which is supposed to be judging the thing has agreed to it. So, although the matter could still misfire as the commission is not yet official, I am hopeful about it. It will be fun to climp up on a scaffolding once myself, daubing a surface of about twelve by twelve feet for a whole month. I designed a division of the plane consisting solely of fish that “move” in black spirals towards the centre (symbolizing death or dying), while a series of white fish “move” outwards from the same centre (life, birth). The attractive, and at the same time difficult, thing is the diminution of the fish figures into infinity. The outer fish will be about five feet long and I want to try and reduce their size consistently until they are mere specks of about half an inch in length.’

Between 1956 and 1959, Escher worked with revolving fish several times. In November 1956, for example, he made a vignette of fish swimming around in ever-decreasing circles. The mural in Utrecht initially seems similar to that vignette, but if you set them alongside one another, clear differences are evident. Incidentally, he reused the motif he designed for the mural. He modified it slightly and printed it twice, with the second print run mirroring the first. The result was the print Whirlpools. Path of Life I and II and Circle Limit I and III also feature circling fish.

M.C. Escher, [Fish, vignet], wood engraving, November 1956
M.C. Escher, Whirlpools, wood engraving and woodcut in red, grey and black, printed from two blocks, November 1957

So, initially, it was only about the painting in the auditorium. Scaffolding was built for Escher, because the wall on which the painting was to be created was located five metres above the ground. Its plasterwork had been replaced specially for his mural. But the masonry frieze that bordered the top of the wall, which he was keen to have removed, was left untouched. Despite that minor setback, travelling to Utrecht and working on the mural was a great pleasure for Escher. For example, on 2 February 1958, he wrote to son Arthur**:

‘I now travel to Utrecht every day and take great pleasure in working on my wall decoration. I sit, stand, bend and stretch all day long to reach all areas with my brush and I often sing away to my heart’s content in that large, well-heated room.’

Although he himself was always averse to the symbolism that many viewers thought they discerned in his work, he was aware that this infinite fish spiral in a cemetery was ripe for symbolic interpretation. By way of illustration, his account of the design addressed to the municipal council included the following***:

‘..But the viewer, in the first place the designer himself, can, if he wishes, discover symbolism in it. For example, death, dying, is illustrated by the four series of black fish, which move towards the centre, getting smaller and smaller. The four streams of white fish, emerging from that same centre, gradually increase in size, grow and symbolise life, birth. Just as there is no life without death, no birth without death, the black and white fish also complement each other in this way and determine each other’s form. The thought of eternity or God can be attached to the centre from which and to which the endless mathematical spirals hurry. The fish is also an example of a Christian symbol.’

Photo: Fotodienst HUA, collection Het Utrechts Archief
Photo: Fotodienst HUA, collection Het Utrechts Archief

The municipal council was that satisfied with the painting in the auditorium that Escher was allowed to submit another design drawing. This one was for two murals in the two waiting rooms of the reception building, which were situated to the left and right of the central auditorium. A fish motif was also visible on this. In the design for the waiting room to the right, black fish swim to the left and white fish to the right. This was exactly the other way around for the room opposite. Due to budget constraints, Escher was ultimately given the assignment for the waiting area on the right only. Hence the symmetry he had in mind, with the auditorium painting in the middle and two mirrored fish motifs in the waiting areas, never came to fruition. In 1978, twenty years after its completion, this work was sawn out of the wall as part of a renovation of the reception building. It was moved to the Utrecht city theatre, where it was in storage for a while and on display in the restaurant of that building from 1995 onwards. In 2016, the work moved to the newly built Escherfoyer, which is part of the ‘Blauwe Zaal’.

Escher was commissioned to produce several works for (semi-)public buildings. For example, a number of tile tessellations can be seen on pillars in school buildings and in a painted form in an office block of North Holland’s provincial authority. His design for wall panels for the town hall in Leiden can only be viewed by appointment. The famous Metamorphosis III, which hung in the post office in The Hague for years and can now be admired at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, is also an example of a painted Escher. Although Escher provided the design for all those works, the end product was made by someone else. The paintings for the auditorium and waiting room of the Tolsteeg cemetery are the only commissioned works created by Escher himself. This special place therefore still attracts visitors from all over the world.

[*] M.C. Escher, His Life and Complete Graphic Work, edited by J.L. Locher, Abradale Press, 1982, page 89
[**] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 392
[***] Motivation by Escher to the advisory committee

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