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Escher and treasures from the Islam

12 July until 3 November 2013

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 in 1936 and he copied them in his notebooks. They connected to what he did 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 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.

In the Islamic art tessellations are made with the same symmetry systems Escher examined. Because of this visual similarities exist between Eschers prints and objects of Islamic art with tessellations. 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 the Islamic art these shapes evolve to complex abstract shapes, or floral shapes: flowers and branches.

For the first time two Dutch museums with totally different backgrounds have organised a common exhibition in which a comparison between Islamic art and the work of MC Escher are central: Escher & Treasures from Islam in The Hague and Escher meets Islamic Art in Amsterdam. In Escher in Het Paleis the focus was on the 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 the Gemeentemuseum.

The Tropenmuseum showed, next to the graphical work of Escher, a focus on his drawings, studies and tessellation studies. This was combined with masterpieces from the Islamic art collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and with loans from the Gemeentemuseum. The objects from the world of Islam, shown both in Amsterdam and in The Hague, where used mainly in a non-religious setting. They come from a large area, extending roughly from Spain to India. Escher has not seen these objects. He got his inspiration from the Moorish (Arabic) art in Granada and Córdoba where he in 1922 and later in 1936 copied mosaics with his wife Jetta .

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

Our former curator Micky Piller tells more about tessellations and visual links between Islamic art and Escher’s work.

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