The Regular Division of The Plane at the ‘De Roos’ foundation
M.C. Escher created illustrations for texts by other people in 1921, 1931 and 1932. But after Flor de Pascua, XXIV Emblemata and De vreeselijke avonturen van Scholastica (The Terrible Adventures of Scholastica) respectively, he was done with it. He no longer wanted to be associated with the book illustration profession. When the bibliophilic De Roos Foundation asks him in 1956 to illustrate a story by Belcampo, he refuses on principle. In his letter to the secretary of the De Roos Foundation, C.J. (Karel) Asselbergs, he says that he is not an illustrator by nature and that he considered illustrating a pure waste of time. He sees it as his duty to visualise his own personal thoughts. He proposes to make a book for De Roos himself, containing ‘word illustrations’ for his own prints.
Asselbergs (1904-1974) was Director of the Breda sugar factory and an avid collector of ex libris and graphic work. He also had his own publishing house, called Eenhoorn Pers. He had founded it in 1944 and in the ten years of its existence it published one or two publications a year. Asselbergs and Escher had become friends and in 1949 and 1951 Escher designed New Year’s greetings for Karel and his wife Lily, which Asselbergs had printed in his own printing works.
He suggested that the De Roos Foundation publish a book containing his own ideas for a number of new tessellations:
‘It might become a most curious publication; or something, at any rate (and said in all modesty), that no other graphic artist on the entire planet would be able to furnish you with. It does not sound very modest, but what can I do about it? That is just the way it is..’**
That book was published in 1958 and consists of three parts. First of all, there is a text section with Escher’s own story about his ‘addiction’ to the regular division of the plane and an explanation of the depicted woodcuts. Then there is a run of six prints in black and white and a run of the same six prints in red. These six new prints are woodcuts that Escher created for this book in the spring of 1957. They include frogs and reptiles, as well as less common subjects such as dogs and riders. The red woodcuts are loose in the book so that the lucky owner can study them while reading Escher’s own notes on them. The Regular Division of the Plane is the best-known and most precious antiquarian book of the De Roos Foundation.
The graphically designed first sentence reads as follows:
‘The printmaker has something of the minstrel spirit’
It continues on the next page of the book:
‘he sings, and in every print that is made from a single block of wood, copper plate or lithographic stone he repeats his song, over and over again. It does not really matter if the occasional sheet gets lost or stained or torn; there copies enough to convey his thoughts, and if there are not sufficient available he can print a new series, in which each individual work is equally perfect, original and complete, as long as the plate from which it is printed is not worn.
How different this is from the principle of uniqueness inherent in painting! We can well understand that a painter often finds it is difficult to part with his spiritual creation, his unique work of art. The best he can hope is that it will lovingly cared for by its foster parents.
The graphic artist, however, is like a blackbird singing at the top of a tree. He repeats his song over and over again, and it is complete in each print that he makes. The more that are required, the better he is pleased. He wishes that the wind would scatter his leaves over the earth, the farther the better; not like the dry leaves of autumn, but rather like seeds ready to germinate and light as a feather.’
Escher then further elaborates on the concepts of repetition and multiplication. Keywords of the graphic arts and words that are all-determining, according to Escher:
‘Everything we love, learn, recognize, accept and put into order we owe to them. The marvellous and mysterious natural laws surrounding us depend on them. The whole world is kept going by them; if they ceased, the universe would fall apart at once.’
In his text he wonders whether the regular division of the plane belongs to the domain of art or that of mathematics. Not to that of art, he states, because he knows of no other artist who is also involved with it. Nor to the domain of mathematics, however. Mathematicians may well study this phenomenon, but they do not work creatively with it themselves. He makes a comparison with a wilderness that must be traversed to eventually end up in a beautiful, orderly garden. A garden filled with countless paths and just as many views. A garden where he can spend many years, but also a garden in which he is alone:
‘I walk around all alone in this beautiful garden, which certainly does not belong only to me, but whose gate is open to everyone. I feel a revitalizing yet oppressive sense of loneliness. That is why I have been extolling the existence of this paradise for many years and why I am now compiling this book from words and images – even though I do not expect many people to wander through. For what fascinates me, what provides my experience of beauty, often seems to be considered dry and tedious by others.’
This is followed by a crystal-clear explanation of his fascination with tessellations, based on the six new woodcuts he created for the book. He ends his speech with an ode to that other great love in his life: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His music not only gives him a lot of fun, but also drives his creativity. It is a spark that sets the mechanism of expression in motion.
The six prints from the book
The De Roos Foundation was founded in June 1945 with the aim of publishing a number of literary texts every year, illustrated or not, giving designers and illustrators the opportunity to work in complete freedom. The circulation would always be limited to 175 copies. The name was a tribute to the book caretaker and type designer S.H. de Roos. The first edition appeared in 1946. As of today, 189 titles have been published, among them publications by artists and designers such as Jan van Krimpen, Jan Bons, Willem Sandberg, Helmut Salden, Atie Siegenbeek van Heukelom, Harry N. Sierman, Kees Nieuwenhuijzen, Irma Boom , Alfons van Heusden, Dirk van Gelder and Simon Koene. The archive is located in Museum Meermanno in The Hague. Some larger (university) libraries have the full range of publications.
[*] and [**] Letter by M.C. Escher to C.J. Asselbergs, 17 May 1956. Collection Museum Meermanno | Huis van het Boek, The Hague (archive De Roos).