If you perceive the world as a never-ending story with a rich variety of repetitive patterns, then tessellation is the ideal pictorial device to apply. Tessellations are patterns of identical shapes that seamlessly interlock and can be repeated endlessly.
The complexity of this process is revealed in one of Escher’s earliest tessellations, which he made in 1922 before his first visit to the Alhambra, the Moorish citadel and palace in the Spanish city of Granada. The print, entitled “Eight Heads”, appears to encompass much more than eight heads. But if you look closely and try to figure out the structure, you will see that Escher repeats the head motif eight times. The head motif is depicted only once in its entirety and several times partially, see the below diagram.
A, A1 and 2 are depicted in their entirety, or partially along the bottom row of heads; B 1 depicts the 2 heads on the right; B2 depicts the 2 heads on the left; C, C1 and 2 depict the bottom 4 heads.
Because the pattern seamlessly interlock upward, downward and sideways, you could – with a little bit of imagination – fill the space between the (virtual) equator and the prime meridian that runs from pole to pole with a strip of Eight Heads. The themes of eternity and perpetuity are thus recognisable, even in this early work.
Needless to say, Escher’s first encounter a few months later with the decorative tile work on the walls of the Alhambra, featuring dozens of tessellating patterns, surpassed his wildest dreams. Here, he found exactly what he himself had been working on, not only in his woodcut Eight Heads, but also earlier. The two other tessellating patterns are however less complicated than this work dating from 1922. These two have more in common with the decorative forms of batik and other block printing techniques.
In the Alhambra, Escher encountered walls, ceilings and rooms filled with colourful abstract decorations, but also tessellations consisting only of lines. Five months previously, he had made Eight Heads. He immediately began to copy the patterns that most fascinated him. The most famous example of a tessellation that Escher copied in the Alhambra is the beautiful drawing that he created on 22 October 1922 of a wall pattern found in one of the rooms.
The pattern can still be seen on the wall tiles of the Alhambra.
Contrary to popular belief, Escher did not immediately apply this delicate and intricate Arabic art to his own work. He was to spend the next years in Italy, where he examined the landscape rather than the possibilities of tessellations, or ‘the regular division of the plane’, as he preferred to call it at that moment.
In those early Italian prints, he was looking for ways to illustrate his observations of a changing perspective during his endless treks through the mountains. In fact, Escher appeared to abandon tessellation after 1922, until 1937.
By 1937, the Eschers had spent 16 months away from Italy. His second and at the time youngest son Arthur had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Doctors had advised the family to leave Rome and to head for the Swiss Alps. The decision to leave Italy was understandable: the family of Jetta Umiker, Escher’s wife, hailed from Switzerland. Nina, Jetta’s sister, was already residing in the country, in Steckborn, where the clean mountain air was known for its healing properties. An ideal climate for tuberculosis patients. While the two boys stayed with their aunt and uncle in Steckborn, Escher and Jetta embarked on a long boat tour along the ports of Italy and Spain (See Cargo Ship). During their tour, they also visited the Spanish cities of Córdoba and Granada.
During their visit to Alhambra in 1936, the Eschers copied patterns that fascinated or interested them. In her exhaustive book Visions of Symmetry, Doris Schattschneider meticulously analysed when Escher made his tessellations and how he applied certain patterns on more than one occasion. She also researched the origins of and inspirations for his tessellations. Schattschneider’s tireless research enables us to trace precisely which tessellations came from the upper sections of the Mezquita in Córdoba or which were made in the Alhambra.
Escher made three prints in quick succesion in 1937 and in February 1938, that feature tessellating patterns.
During a family visit to the Netherlands, his older half-brother Berend (Beer) caught his first glimpse of Metamorphosis I. Suspecting that Escher might be interested in the latest developments in his specialist subject (crystallography), Beer sent his younger brother a short bibliography. It is now generally assumed that it was partly Beer’s gesture that prompted Escher – years later, during the war – to jot down his thoughts about the structure and the possibilities of tessellations in countless notebooks. These hundreds of variations on endlessly repeating patterns form the basis for his later prints.
As a mark of gratitude, Escher donated a unique edition of his world-famous Day and Night to Berend and his sister-in-law, with the grey sections printed in pale blue. In 2009, this print was gifted to Escher in The Palace by volunteers of Stichting Paleiswinkel.
But it all began in 1922 with Eight Heads. As is often the case with M.C. Escher, he revisited a theme -in this case the tessellation- years later and made it into his own.