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Escher's Tesselations

I spent and enjoyable afternoon Saturday at a local art fair and museum with two of my children, an outing that included the museum's featured exhibit of works by M.C. Escher. The exhibit was extensive, encompassing over 300 of Escher's 445 known finished works, and included the furnishings of his workroom along with some of his drafting tools and "cancelled" stone blocks of some of his better known lithographs.

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1878-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist whose drawings, woodcut prints, and lithographs are amazing for their textures, patterns, and exploration of 2-d and 3-d geometry. The exhibit also included both his preliminary pencil and ink sketches for some notable works, and in one case, his mathematical calculations for projecting one of his "impossible" geometries onto a flat piece of paper.

Nearly all art is the expression of some type of pattern or other. The rhyme scheme or rhythm of a poem, the repeating melody and beat of a piece of music, the patterns of color or contrast that make a painting memorable, the storyline of boy finds girl / boy loses girl / boy finds girl again, gospel's call and response / call and response / call and response, an author's use of asonance and disonance. Some of the best art is that which blends together the patterns and contrasts in the world around us to create something new and different.

Escher was a master of this synthesis. He could look at a flat plane in space and imagine tesselations - breaking the smooth featureless surface into intricate patterns of repeating interwoven shapes - which might subside back into smoothness or might suddenly evolve into the infinitely large or infinitely small. Escher also liked visual paradoxes - impossible arrangements in space where the question of "which way is up" is meaningless. He liked the ideas of cycles with infinite repetition or recursion - like mobius strips inflated into fully three-dimensional geometries.

Among his most famous designs are an image of a hand drawing a second hand, which is in turn drawing the first hand. Another is a room filled with stairways, doors and windows with figures posed on impossible surfaces as if gravity was pulling in all directions at once. Another is a pair of identical landscapes - "Day and Night" overlaid with interwoven flocks of tesselated birds, half white, half black.

Escher's images tell their stories with a clarity and simplicity that seriously belies the effort he must have put into them. Even his straightforward graphics of city scenes and landscapes from his travels in Spain and Italy have an otherworldly quality, every shadow etched with crisp precision.

While I have always been a fan of his art, the most fascinating exhibit item for me was actually the door of Escher's studio cabinet in which his wooden squares, rules, and triangles were kept. Taped to the door were photographs that he had chosen to have in his studio, to look at day in and day out over the years. There were photos of his childhood, of him as a young man, photos of his son, and two photos of him with his wife Jetta.

Those two photos caught my eye - one I think was of the two of them at the reception after their their wedding, raising champaigne glasses towards each other in a toast. The two figures, in their formal dress and the high contrast of a very old photo, poised with their glasses raised in perfect symmetry. The other appears to be taken outdoors a few years later, Jetta sitting at an angle across Mauritis lap, the vertical corner of a rural building behind them splitting the scene into two nearly matching portraits, hands at their sides, faces each at a quarter-turn. I think these were special for Escher becaue they captured his life in a way that mirrored so appropriately his life's work - turning patterns into life, and then back into patterns again.

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