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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher

M.C. ESCHER: INFINITY UNIVERSES

The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher Borja Ferrater / Juan Domingo Santos / Carlos Ferrater Curators and Architects of the Exhibition

Anyone who has come across a work by Escher ought to have first noticed his drawings, simple at first glance, and then, taken by surprise by something odd, ought to have returned to the drawings trying to decipher them – seriously trying as Escher would put it – wondering what strange reasons would bring the Dutch artist to construct such worlds.

Escher’s oeuvre concerns a game based on the permanent breakdown of figures and shapes. He himself would say: “I am not getting older. Inside me is the young child of my early years”. It is also the work of an enthusiast that inquisitively draws closer to the world of science spellbound by its discoveries, endeavouring to interpret the scientific from beyond the discipline. The inquisitiveness

and

relationship

Escher

held

with

mathematics

and

crystallography is known as the basis for thorough and meticulous work:

“At first I had no idea at all of the possibility of systematically building up my figures. I did not know… this was possible for someone untrained in mathematics” (M.C. Escher)

Escher is said to be a strange artist that is difficult to pigeonhole, removed from the common art movements. Various interpretations have been made of his work, but the truth is that an artist spends their time conducting research that brings them to diverse production, at times driven by intuition, and at other

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher times by interest in certain issues that do not cease to be paths with an uncertain course and yet which critics later attempt to compartmentalise. Escher’s work constitutes visual games and imaginary fantasies that he himself invents and captures in his paintings. He was not interested in reality, only the things he could imagine in his own universe. The product is a fantasy world which only exists within the bounds of drawing and invention: the subjective interpretation of a reality.

But perhaps the greatest peculiarity of Escher’s work lies in the ambiguous position his work takes between science and art. A position that is shared by some artists in the early 20th century such as Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists, who endeavoured to afford an interpretation of certain scientific discoveries from the standpoint of art, such as the theory of relativity and the complex relationships established between curved space and time. Art during the first half of the 20th century witnessed scientific progress and contributed to explaining a reality that transcends the direct perception of events, even though their interpretations may be labelled “unscientific” or somewhat sui generis. Therefore, there is a way of seeing science called upon from art that has proved conducive to what may be called a scientific dimension of the artwork, something that is also uncommon in the history of art to date. From this point of view, Escher’s work does not cease to be an explanation of the possibilities of a world in which we live and allows us to draw closer to the understanding of science without the need for specific or specialist knowledge. For Escher, complex mathematical processes could be reduced to a graphic explanation by means of geometry. A geometry that is diluted at first glance, becoming an optical illusion that leads us to a new unreal world. His oeuvre is a journey through the surface structure and the spatial structure broken up into fragments.

From comments made during the time, we are aware that meetings between artists often featured the presence of mathematicians and physicists that translated the new scientific theories of relativity and the fourth dimension for

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher the non-specialist. Moreover, though the mathematical content fell beyond the realm of artists’ knowledge, they were forever fascinated by the outcomes of new discoveries. Hence, for instance, the intuitive interpretations that artists have made of scientific discoveries are, at times, even more enlightening than the explanations made by science itself. Many works of art reveal a scientific meaning or at least attempt to shed light on events. Escher may have been the artist that best reflected modern mathematical thinking artistically. His work demonstrates an in-depth understanding of geometrical concepts and the perspectives of curved space. Among the features of his work are duality and the pursuit of balance, symmetry, the infinite versus the finite and the possibility of every object represented affording its mirror image. All these aspects are very much linked to the scientific field.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born on 17 June 1898 in Leeuwarden, a small Dutch town in the north of the Netherlands. From his childhood, his primary school studies were complemented with other activities such as piano, carpentry and later literature and drawing. His father F.W. van der Haagen introduced him to the linoleum cut technique from an early age. He enrolled in the School of Architecture in Delft in 1918 and, a year later, he moved to Haarlem where he pursued his studies in the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. There he made the acquaintance of the artist Jessurun de Mesquita who, after setting eyes on his drawings, swayed him to abandon architecture and direct his studies toward the graphic and decorative arts. Jessurun de Mesquita became his master and would be a constant point of reference throughout his life. Under his tutelage, he acquired solid training in drawing and became exceptionally noteworthy for his woodcut technique that he came to master with great skill.

Having completed his studies in 1921, Escher devoted himself to travelling to complete

his

training.

Southern

European

and

especially

Italy,

the

Mediterranean and its urban and natural landscapes, became the preferred destinations of the young artist. Places to which he would return in subsequent

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher journeys and which would be a constant feature in his work throughout his life. On these travels, he made drawings of Tuscany, the sea, its landscapes and architectures. However, it was his two journeys to Spain and particularly his encounter with great Islamic monuments such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque of Córdoba, whose visits had a profound effect on the artist, that were to decisively influence his work thereafter. The discovery of the geometric ornamentation of the Islamic world proved a decisive event to the extent of becoming an obsession for him and forming the basis of his work in the more mature stage of his career.

The 1920s and 1930s were punctuated with constant journeys to Italy and the Mediterranean, in which he compiled an extensive repertoire of natural and artificial landscapes in sketches and drawings from life. Siena, Cimino, Rome, Corsica, Sicily, San Gimignano, Abruzzo and particularly Calabria and Atrani were the most depicted landscapes. Escher drew cities and monuments, natural areas and invented landscapes, night and day scenes, which he came upon on his travels and which he carried out with extraordinary virtuosity as well as various lithographic and woodcut techniques:

“My meandering ways lead me across the crests of the hills. I can see far across the Tuscan landscape, far, as far as the waving horizon of the Apennines”.

From these travels in his youth, Escher would always remember the light and the architecture in relation to the surrounding nature. He liked to depict the city’s relationship with the monuments and its landscape, perhaps influenced by his initial architecture studies.

Escher’s oeuvre is the work of a traveller constantly heading southwards, similar to that of Matisse and other contemporary artists that encountered a constant reference for their work in its climate and in its light. Travel as an artistic experience had one of its preferred destinations in the Alhambra and the

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher Generalife in Granada. Matisse’s journey to the Alhambra occurred twelve years previous to Escher’s visit. Both Matisse and Escher were spellbound by the geometric games of the plasterwork, the glazed tiles and the light of its rooms and courtyards filtered through the lattice windows. Matisse’s impression of his encounter with the Oriental world was noted in the letter he sent to his wife that very night following his visit on 11 December 1910: “The Alhambra is a marvel. I felt an intense emotion there”. It was a journey that would profoundly change the painting technique and the subject matter of the paintings of the Parisian artist in a process of reinventing his art. The same would happen to Escher, fascinated by the decorative designs of this architecture which he visited on two occasions, firstly in 1922 and secondly in 1936, two journeys that decisively influenced his subsequent production and during which he made various sketches and drawings in his travel journals.

Escher set foot in Granada for the first time on 17 October 1922 with the intention of visiting the Nasrid fortress after travelling around the Iberian Peninsula. The Alhambra he encountered had hardly any tourists and presented the appearance of a restored monument with the interventions of “decorators” exhibiting a lack of respect for its original state, which accentuated the Oriental character of the complex. He visited the Nasrid Palaces, the Patio of the Myrtles, the Patio of the Lions, the Lindaraja and El Partal Gardens, and reproduced their rich tiling and plasterwork decorations in diagrams and drawings. In his diary, Escher wrote:

“This morning I was in the Alhambra. I enjoyed this wonderful aristocratic piece of art immensely. This afternoon I returned and began to copy majolica designs”.

Escher may have undertaken this journey to Granada influenced by the fascination for the Orient that drew 19th-century English and French travellers, beguiled by the Alhambra myth and the reencounter with the Moorish that was so in vogue at that time. The Alhambra had already played a prominent role in

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher two of the most interesting processes of critical reflection on the plastic arts during the 19th century. One represented by the cultural construction of a world closer to fantasy than historic reality, conceived by the romantic vision of artists and writers that travelled to this place in pursuit of a marvellous setting. The other process is derived from an analytical view of the monument’s ornamental language initiated by the architects Jules Goury and Owen Jones, reflected in their studies of the Alhambra as a decorative system of reference. It is in this second vein wherein lies the view of Escher on his two visits to the red fortress, in which he undertook a thorough and detailed study of the decorative plasterwork and tiling that later were to exert such an influence on his work and would allow him to attain his very own language. Escher may have also become acquainted with the text by Owen Jones “The Grammar of Ornament” (1856), an important guide to ornamentation used as a reference book in European design centres and subsequently highly influential for the Arts and Crafts movement, which integrated a wide array of Islamic decorative systems and which upheld the universal role of the Alhambra’s aesthetic and decorative system.

The visit to the Alhambra would challenge Escher in his aesthetic search for a language that synthesises and abstracts the geometric forms of Moorish decoration. The Arabic palaces would show themselves to be a perfect blend of architecture and decoration, a continuous system without boundaries in which structures and enclosures are transformed in terms of representation. On this first journey he made a drawing of a mosaic in the Alhambra, which he signed 20 October 1922. It is a faithful reproduction of one of the tiles in the Nasrid Palaces that Escher would later refer to in his study of the monument’s geometric compositions. Fully immersed in the process of creative research and renewal, Escher thereafter secured a path he was to build upon throughout his artistic career.

The south, and particularly the Alhambra, would therefore become a recurring journey of the imagination and a realm of new inspiration. Escher and the

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher Alhambra, or the Alhambra and Escher, form a joyful encounter, since the visit, as had occurred with other artists, would trigger his creative ability and unveil the Moorish ornamental world as the artistic objective he had been seeking. This association allowed Escher to formulate a theory on the relationships between Islamic decoration and their breakdown into basic geometries, a discovery that he himself would define as the regular geometric division of figures in the plane and the use of patterns to fill the space without leaving empty spaces. This recurring concept in the Alhambra decorations would come to obsess him throughout his lifetime occupying much of his work.

“The Arabs were a few genuine masters of the art of dividing the plane. The Alhambra is filled with colourful patterns made by juxtaposing pieces leaving no space between them”.

“The regular division of the plane into congruent figures evoking an association in the observer with a familiar natural object is one of these hobbies or problems... I have embarked on this geometric problem again and again over the years, trying to throw light on different aspects each time. I cannot imagine what my life would be like if this problem had never occurred to me; one might say that I am head over heels in love with it, and I still don’t know why”.

Hence the importance exerted by his encounter with the Alhambra for his work. On his second visit in particular, he devoted himself to analysing the geometry of the tile reliefs, the rhythms of the plasterwork on the walls and the ceilings and the floor moulding made of polychromatic tiles by means of drawings and notes that years later would prove extremely useful for executing his works.

The division into congruent figures that he himself acknowledged as one of the main threads of his work reaches even greater development in Metamorphosis, a series of highly elaborate works in which animated figures of humans and animals emerge from the process of dividing the plane. The origin of these

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher works lies in the engravings he made following his first visit to the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque of Córdoba, after having undertaken a detailed study of the composition of the tiling and ornamentation design. He himself wrote an article in the art periodical De Delver in 1941:

“The problem of how to fit congruent figures together… particularly when the shape of such figures is meant to arouse within the viewer associations with an object or natural form began to intrigue me even more after my first trip to Spain in 1922. Although my interest at that time was mainly focused on free graphic art, every now and then I would return to the mental gymnastics of my puzzles thanks to the inspiration of the cerebral Moorish decoration.”

On his second journey to Spain from April to June 1936 together with his wife Jetta Umiker, he travelled the length of the Mediterranean coast passing through Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Elche, Cartagena, Almería and Motril. From 23 to 26 May he visited Granada and the Alhambra once again, dedicating himself to painstakingly documenting the tiling, decorations and plasterwork by means of detailed studies, fundamental for his subsequent works, particularly in the field of plane division. Numerous sketches and notes which he made in pencil and chalk, in pastel, in black and white and in colour, are conserved from these studies. On 30 May he visited the Mosque of Córdoba and drew a charcoal scene in which he reproduced its boundless interior with the forest of columns that extend towards infinity. The work is dated 2 June, three days after his arrival in the Andalusian city. Afterwards, he visited the Royal Alcázar of Seville and he finally left Spain on 6 June, departing by boat from Valencia.

Escher’s second visit to the Alhambra differs from the first on account of its purpose and the necessary search for elements. While the first journey emerged from the fascination with a new and different world, the second visit concerned a journey with a set destination in pursuit of a decorative structure

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher based on geometry and the abstract representation of nature. Undoubtedly, there are recurring themes in the Alhambra that proved of interest to Escher, such as the stylistic and geometric forms of Islamic art, and especially the Utopian idea of nature surrounding every decoration. Nature comes forth as an open flow of relationships wherein we feel we are witnessing the celebration of the encounter between very different things. In the Alhambra, the notion of landscape is produced at different levels of interpretation: at times it imitates nature, at other times, it adds force to the figurative dimension, and at certain times it appears in a more symbolic manner. This means of expressing nature freely, sometimes figuratively, was of particular interest to Escher who found a subject to create his compositions in this method of representation.

In the Alhambra, ornamentation appears to be linked to repetition and the alternation of motifs that coat the surface of the walls, a treated skin that repeatedly covers all areas and whose appearance changes according to the viewer’s position when moving. The repetition of an individual motif, whether a floral or geometric motif on the plasterwork or a colour on the tiling, is not seen as a singular image but rather becomes a dynamic series which extends between the interior and the exterior, producing a sense of continuous movement. A similar situation to the effects produced by Op Art or Kinetic Art with which Escher was familiar because of other artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Josef Albers, or the Futurist movement. This optical effect of the Alhambra’s tiled floor moulding which produces both a sense of dynamism and certain visual confusion greatly interested Escher.

The relationship levels between architecture and nature through drawing and ornamentation in the plane fascinated Escher, so much so that he dedicated himself to studying the decorations of the Alhambra, lifting and drawing detail by detail tiles, mosaics and plaster calligraphy on walls and ceilings, endeavouring to decipher the laws of their composition and the rules of alternation governing their figures. Escher found surprising the idea of an architecture that represented nature on its walls with poems and letters cast in interlocking plant

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher forms, flowers and leaves. These metamorphoses between geometry and nature through epigraphic calligraphy really stuck Escher and he did not hesitate to transfer them to his artworks, interpreted by other figures and shapes.

On the one hand, the second visit to the Alhambra entailed the consolidation of certain geometric principles he had become acquainted with on his first journey to the Islamic world and, on the other hand, the discovery of the transformation processes experienced by certain geometric forms turned into natural forms, specifically plants and flowers. From this journey stemmed his interest in metamorphosis and the continuous transformation of forms. Influenced by the Alhambra, in his later works Escher would put forward contiguity as a state of permanent transformation that allows us to move from one form to another almost effortlessly. These transformations on the plane would be rendered in the work of Escher in a dynamic balance between recurrent motifs and their successive changes.

“Man is incapable of imagining that time could ever stop. For us, even if the earth should cease turning on its axis and revolving around the sun, even if there were no longer days and nights, summers and winters, time would continue to flow on eternally�.

This infinite time of which Escher speaks to us is represented in his work by the continuous transformation of objects and figures that parade before our eyes like an endless carrousel. Hence his fascination for the MĂśbius strip, games of knots, spirals, infinite encounters of figures, uncertain limits or unfinished surfaces. An entire constellation of games, forms and geometries that blend into the plane to infinity, without end.

However, Escher missed the beautiful representation of nature of the Alhambra, the presence of the human and animal figure:

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher “The Moors were masters in the filling of a surface with congruent figures leaving no gaps. In the Alhambra, in Spain, especially, they decorated the walls by placing congruent multi-coloured pieces of majolica together without interstices. What a pity it was that Islam forbade the making of “images”. In their tessellations they restricted themselves to figures with abstract geometrical shapes. No Moorish artist has ever dared

to use as building components concrete, recognisable

figures borrowed from nature, such as fishes, birds, reptiles, or human beings.” […]

From these statements his interest in broadening the Islamic vision in the division of the plane may be deduced, extending it to a greater variety of figures. The transition from geometric expressions to animal forms which live in the plane and cannot exist in space, strange mathematical bodies, metamorphosis, impossible worlds and approximations to infinity based on optical illusions. His studies on the regular division of the plane afford his work a spatial quality surpassing the laws of perspective.

Escher would leave Spain in June 1936 with countless sketches under his arm and brimming with ideas for future works. He would never set foot in the red fortress again but his later work would be influenced by this enlightening visit. The artistic discoveries made by these two visits to the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque of Córdoba and their influence on his work bear testimony to the evolution of this Escher universe towards an evermore intimate and personal realm of creation.

The work Metamorphosis II made in 1939 following his return from his second visit to the Alhambra represents this idea of the transformation of forms related by contiguity. A series of basic geometric figures such as squares, hexagons and triangles evolve until they turn into lizards, bees, birds and fish. Also in this evolution of forms emerges the construction of an ideal city reminiscent of his journeys to the Mediterranean. This entire set of figures comprising a

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher continuous landscape and changing constantly, travelling before our eyes. Escher’s

metamorphoses

encompass

the

teachings

of

the

Alhambra

decorations and remind us that a certain ambiguity surrounds everything around us in the real, objective space.

Following his return from Spain, he moved to Ukkel, a suburb of Brussels, and in 1941, after the death of his parents and difficult period in Belgium during the Second World War, he returned once again to the city of Baarn in the Netherlands. It was in this period that his interest in the real reproduction of nature waned, enclosed in an imaginary world in which he constructed subjective scenarios. As from 1950 and 1960, Escher dedicated himself to manipulating space and perspective, experimenting with gravity and the construction of impossible spaces and architectures. The ambiguity of these scenarios in which different worlds converge simultaneously and cyclically, constitute a subjective framework of very suggestive work, the product of the artist’s imagination.

“Not one of us needs to doubt the existence of an unreal, subjective space. But personally I am not sure of the existence of a real, objective space. All our senses reveal only a subjective world to us; all we can do is think and possibly mean that therefore we can conclude the existence of an objective world”.

This conclusion that there are only subjective spaces in each of us would bring Escher to construct imaginary worlds with impossible architectures. Scenarios in which he would experiment with gravity, with false perspective, recreating areas and landscapes discovered on his travels that had become a reference for his imaginary landscapes.

Escher’s attraction towards strange and impossible spaces, with distorted vanishing points and only apprehensible in the imagination, is likely to have stemmed from his initial interest in architecture and particularly the engravings

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher by Piranesi, the vedute, with which he became acquainted on his travels to Rome in his youth. On beholding lithographs such as Relativity (1953) or Convex and Concave (1955), it is impossible not to bring to mind the Carcieri (prisons) of the Venetian artist, from which Escher would learn the continuous and endless spatial relationship, the cyclical perspective with no beginning or end, leaving aside the objectivity of the space represented. These spatial fantasies are conceptual constructs, which uphold a discourse on the relationship between time and space.

Escher’s architectural constructions are neither functional nor obey specific plans, but rather they concern places in which the relationship between space, time and infinite movement are inextricably interlinked. Imaginary architectures in which the continuous space folds into various simultaneous levels, with no beginning or end. They are not architectural constructions in the sense we are familiar with, but rather games, investigations that distort our reality by means of discontinuities that end with the scale of the object. The Coxeter stairway that does not lead anywhere, Riemann’s surfaces and continuous floors and ceilings are highly evocative distractions from reality for the viewer, which also afford architectural, scientific and artistic connotations. Hence the interest his work sparks in various fields of knowledge.

From 1950, Escher’s work was widely published in reviews and opinion articles. His works, much appreciated by scientists that perceived the artistic translation of their mathematical and physical theories therein, have contributed to the spread of science. We can say that Escher’s work has also become a vehicle for the dissemination of scientific theories, of great interest to mathematicians and architects that find conceptual reflections on space in the imaginary worlds of Escher. At the beginning of 1960, Escher would begin to compile the discoveries he made in his writings, hypothesising about the conception processes of his work. This follower of mathematics and science, and astronomy in particular, had managed to express the concerns of his time artistically.

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher

His work in this era began to be valued on the market, which allowed him to live out his final years in comfort. He was very prolific in his production, making more than 400 lithographs and woodcuts, as well as some 2,000 drawings and sketches. He was also commissioned with projects such as designing postage stamps, book covers, a number of ivory and wood sculptures, mosaics, decorative murals on buildings – such as the post office headquarters in The Hague – and designing banknotes for the Bank of the Netherlands. He used drawings from previous periods to create some of his sculptures and he recycled ideas for new commissions. In 1970, he moved to the convalescent home for artists Rosa Spierhuis in Laren, Northern Holland, where he had his own studio. He died on 27 March 1972 at the age of 74.

Today, given that the study of complex geometries underpins most plastic art and contemporary architecture, Escher has begun to be recognised and appreciated for his interdisciplinarity. His most popular works of impossible figures and backgrounds reticulated with patterns and imaginary worlds have been reproduced countless times on the covers of books and magazines. In a sense, he is one of the most referenced artists in 20th-century popular culture.

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The Alhambra in the Imaginary World of Escher  

Article by the curators and architects of the of the temporary exhibition "M.C. Escher: Infinity Universes" on view in Granada (Spain) at Pa...

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