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Escher & Treasures from the Islam

12 July to 3 November 2013

For the first time, two Dutch museums with totally different backgrounds organised a common exhibition in which a comparison between Islamic art and the work of MC Escher was central: Escher & Treasures from the Islam in Escher in The Palace, and Escher meets Islamic Art in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

After 1936, M. C. Escher used tessellation as the ideal means for his main themes, eternity and infinity. Escher was impressed by the sophisticated and sometimes complicated tessellations he saw in Andalusia in 1922 and 1936, and he copied them in his notebooks. They connected to what he tried out during his training as a graphical artist between 1919 and 1922. In 1937 his older half-brother, the geographer and crystallographer Berend Escher, showed him the seventeen symmetry systems of Pólya, Escher let his imagination run wild. For years Escher studied and made variations of these systems in notebooks, on loose sheets, and in colour studies. This collection of studies was an inexhaustible source for his prints.

M.C. Escher. Path of Life I, woodcut in red and black, printed from two blocks, March 1958
Iran, about 1300-1400, Cuerda seca technique, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

In Islamic art, tessellations are made with the same symmetry systems Escher examined. Because of this, visual similarities exist between Escher’s prints and Islamic art. It is noteworthy that both Escher, as well as the Islamic artists, only used a compass and a ruler to design their patterns. In the prints made by Escher, you will often see living beings change: birds, fish, butterflies, and reptiles. He will show you changes in shapes, or continuous movement with these motifs. In Islamic art, these shapes evolve to complex abstract shapes, or floral shapes: flowers and branches.

A unique collaboration

Because M.C. Escher was a printmaker and worked in edition, it was possible to show a number of the same prints in both museums. The Tropenmuseum showed, next to the graphical work of Escher, a focus on his drawings, studies, and tessellation studies. These were combined with masterpieces from the Islamic art collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and with loans from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. The objects from the Islamic world, shown both in Amsterdam and in The Hague, were used mainly in a non-religious setting. They come from a vast region, extending roughly from Spain to India. Escher has never seen these objects. He got his inspiration from the Spanish-Islamic art in Granada and Córdoba where he in 1922 and later in 1936 copied mosaics with his wife Jetta .

Escher in The Palace focused on Escher’s graphical work, with world-famous prints such as Metamorphosis I, II and III, Day and Night and Reptiles and a large loan from the renowned Islamica collection of Kunstmuseum Den Haag (formerly: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag)

Publisher THOTH offered a richly illustrated catalogue in both Dutch and English: Escher & Treasures from Islam and Islamic Art Meets Escher.