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Wall mosaic in the Alhambra

On October 20, 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 Malaga. 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 environment well. 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 center 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. 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 star-burst tile design that fascinated him by 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. Looking back at it, his first tessellations from 1920-1922, this first copy from the Alhambra, his experiments with repeating patterns of figures that did have a human or animal form and his return to the patterns in 1936, form a chain of events that only shows in retrospect.

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 that time, tessellations were a minor 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 recognize until 1936 as an important inspiration for his further artistic career. From that moment on he started nurturing it by practicing, sketching, experimenting for years. Failing too. Not the theoretical knowledge, but a tough tenacity would eventually make him completely master of the regular division of the plane.

More Escher today