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Wall mosaic in the Alhambra

On 20 October 1922, Escher creates a drawing that—in retrospect—would have a major impact on his life. He made his first voyage by freighter that autumn, from Amsterdam to the Spanish port city of Málaga. The ship also moored in Alicante and Taragona, after which Escher traveled by train to Barcelona, Madrid, Avila and Toledo. In each city he stayed for a few days to take in the setting properly. On 17 October, after a long and very slow train journey from Toledo, he arrived in Granada*. There he visited the beautiful Alhambra. This 14th-century castle was once built as an aristocratic and administrative centre for the last Moorish regime in Spain.

In his diary he noted:

‘It was wonderfully oriental. The strange thing to me was the great richness of decoration (bas-relief in stucco) and the great dignity and simple beauty of the whole place. Those Arabs were aristocrats, such as are no longer found today.’

Eschers travel journal of 1922, pages 68 and 69, with his visit to the Alhambra on 19 and 20 October

In the Alhambra he saw for the first time the decorative majolica tilings and stucco designs covering many walls of the buildings. The great wealth of decoration, the dignity and simple beauty of the whole place moved him. However, he noted in his diary:

‘The strange thing about this Moorish decoration is the total absence of any human or animal form—even, almost, of any plant form’.

He spent that whole afternoon sketching an intricate starburst tile design that fascinated him on account of its ‘great complexity and geometric artistry’.

He went on working on it in his room and the next morning he finished it. The copy of the wall mosaic in the Alhambra would bring him to this place again in 1936 and he would again draw patterns that he found in the palace. Hence his first tessellations from 1920-1922, this first copy from the Alhambra, his experiments with repeating patterns of figures that did feature a human or animal form and his return to the patterns in 1936 form a chain of events that is only evident with the benefit of hindsight.

M.C. Escher, Plane-filling Motif with Human Figures, woodcut, 1920 or 1921
M.C. Escher, Plane-Filling Motif with Human Figures, lithograph in blue, green and red, 1920 or 1921

M.C. Escher, Eight Heads, woodcut, printed once from the whole block and eight times from different parts, January, February or March, 1922
Alhambra, 2011

At the time, tessellations were a minor focus area for Escher, who was mainly working from nature. His fascination with the subject was still slumbering, as an unconsciously growing plant that he would not recognise as a significant source of inspiration for his further artistic career until 1936. From that moment on he started nurturing it by practising, sketching, experimenting for years. Failing too. It was not the theoretical knowledge but rather a tough tenacity that would eventually help him completely master the regular division of the plane.

Source
[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, blz. 84-85

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