Optical illusion as a bridge to infinity: Escher meets Islamic art

M.C. Escher, 'Cirkellimiet IV' , 1960, woodcut Gemeentemuseum Den Haag collection © the M.C. Escher Company B.V. www.mcescher.com

M.C. Escher, ‘Circle Limit IV’  (1960), woodcut
Part of collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag © the M.C. Escher Company B.V. www.mcescher.com

Most people in The Netherlands are familiar with the work of their fellow Dutchman and graphic artist Maurits Cornelis “Mauk” Escher, who lived from 1898 to 1972. His ‘impossible’ designs and series of metamorphoses received worldwide acclaim and are still subject to large-scale reproduction. Few people are aware that Escher’s sublime adoption of human figures and patterns is based upon precise mathematical structures applied for centuries in the world of ‘Islamic’ art: two visits paid to the 14th century Alhambra decisively altered Escher’s perception of graphical design.  This is the subject of a temporary double exhibition in Amsterdam and The Hague.

Fifteen years have passed since Escher’s work was widely displayed during the centennial celebration of his birthday in 1998. At the time, a highlight was the exhibition at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where the public was treated to specially designed digital and audiovisual masterpieces which offered the opportunity to physically experience the impossible spaciousness of Escher’s designs. A well-received documentary about Escher’s life, travels and work was presented the same year, as was a unique stamp featuring one of Escher’s designs and his portrait.

The present double exhibition ‘Escher meets Islamic Art’ at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and ‘Escher & Schatten uit de islam’ (‘Escher and Treasures of Islam’) at ‘Escher in het Paleis’ in The Hague addresses Escher’s work from a brand new perspective. These two complementary exhibitions present the development of Escher’s graphic art based on fascinating audiovisual presentations, animations and relevant samples of (sometimes age-old) artistic artefacts from the wider Islam-dominated geographical area ranging from Morocco to India. Both exhibitions are fine examples of the related curators’ expertise, and were realised in close cooperation with the M.C. Escher Foundation and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Marble panel with geometric decoration (1350 – 1500), Egypt (Mamluk era) Tropenmuseum collection

Marble panel with geometric decoration (1350 – 1500, Mamluk), Egypt . Part of collection Tropenmuseum.

From informant to exhibition

The story behind the coming into being of the present double

exhibition is interesting enough for anyone hooked on art from the above-mentioned area. A few years ago, a Turkish-Dutch doctoral student to be, Hüseyin Sen (1978) informed the Tropenmuseum about the visual marks of Islamic geometry in Escher’s work; the rest is history. Hüseyin: “My interest in the work of Escher dates back to 2005 and 2006, when I opted for the master History of Science and Philosophy at the University of Utrecht and started to focus on the history of Arabic science. Professor Jan Hogendijk (a Dutch specialist in the field of Arabic mathematics and astronomy) enabled me to develop a workshop for a study trip to Iran. From that moment onwards I have been giving workshops in The Netherlands and abroad about the so-called tessellations which fascinated and inspired Escher to such a great extent. My aim is to arouse the interest of students in this regard.”


Although many will not be familiar with the term ‘tessellation’, its meaning is not quite as complex as it seems. The artist simply uses the full but confined surface of the material in the chosen technique in a particular mathematical structure, thus creating a balanced and often rhythmic image consisting of human, floral or abstract figures in a seamless, pattern-like design. The repetition of this pattern offers a sense of tranquillity, movement or even infinity; something which is strikingly visible in the various (Islamic) artistic artefacts selected for the present double exhibition. Despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that Escher ever saw the pieces displayed in the exhibitions in Amsterdam and The Hague, the mathematical structures underlying the designs of these artefacts are profoundly similar to the ones used by Escher. Escher referred to tessellations as a rich and endless source of inspiration.


Escher is believed to have first encountered consequently applied mathematical structures in tessellations made up of lines and colourful abstract decorations in the 14th century Alhambra, the well-known palace and fortress complex in Southern Spain. Although he visited the Alhambra in 1922 after his graduation as a graphic artist, he was already interested in geometry, symmetry and tessellations for some years: Eschers teacher S.J. de Mesquita (a famous graphic artist) instructed him at the School voor Kunstnijverheid (School of Applied Arts) in the Dutch city of Haarlem while Escher enthusiastically experimented with tessellation.

M.C. Escher, Wall mosaic Alhambra, 1922, drawing Gemeentemuseum Den Haag collection © the M.C. Escher Company B.V. www.mcescher.com

M.C. Escher, Wall mosaic Alhambra (1922), drawing.
Part of collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag © the M.C. Escher Company B.V. www.mcescher.com

Hoping to grasp the mathematical proportions of the geometrical designs he encountered, Escher copied various Moorish (tile) motifs in the Alhambra during this first visit

in 1922. He was fascinated by the effect of colour on the visual perspective, causing some motifs to seem infinite –an effect partly caused by symmetry. Despite his efforts in the following years, Escher failed to understand the principles behind tessellation. Only between 1937 and 1942 he succeeded in doing so, after he had visited the Alhambra for a second time, in 1936. He was accompanied by his wife, both copying motifs again. Eschers work consists of some hundred pieces based upon tessellation structures as found in the Alhambra.

Analytical intellect vs. inspiration

Escher’s artistry was clear early on. He created ex libris images (‘from the books (of)’, graphics indicating book ownership), portraits of people and animals and ‘impossible’ scenes. Moreover, Escher enjoyed solving mathematical problems in which complex perspective and composition played an important part. Escher’s father initially hoped that his son would be inclined to tread in his footsteps as an architect. That was in vain, as it turned out, even though some of Escher’s work hints at both his interest and insight in architecture. Wim van Sinderen, the curator the 1998 exhibition of Escher’s work at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, noted that Escher’s work is especially reminiscent of inspiration drawn from keen observation and clear insight into geometry. “Escher was an artist whose approach to things was based upon intuition and empathy rather than analytical intellect. He was spiritually inclined and approached the world accordingly.”


The master artists and craftsmen who applied Islamic geometry in art and architecture were by no means mathematicians, according to specialist Eric Broug. He contributed to the aptly designed catalogue ‘Escher meets Islamic Art’ that accompanies the present double exhibition in Amsterdam and The Hague. Broug explains that these master artists and craftsmen did not occupy themselves with complicated measurements: all they needed was a drawing compass and a simple ruler. These tools enabled the creation of each and every design based upon Islamic geometry, as the interplay between lines, circles, arches and the intermediary space could be emphasised, blurred or altered by applying colour. This approach still allows for the sheer endless possibilities of geometrical designs as known from the world of Islam today.

 A tessellation is usually made up in a particular structure, like a square or a hexagon, and displays (part of) a confined pattern which can be repeated according to specific rules in order to cover a larger surface. A nice interactive feature offered at the exhibition at the Tropenmuseum is a software application that not only allows visitors to gain insight in this principle in an accessible way, but also allows them to generate their own design based on Islamic geometric patterns.

Ramadan Special Offer

al.arte.magazine in cooperation with the Tropenmuseum offers its readers a reduction of 20% on the entrance fee of the exhibition ‘Escher meets Islamic art’. Print out the image below and hand it in at the ticket booth, or show it on your mobile. Reduction only valid during the month of Ramadan 2013! That’s until 18 or 19 August.


‘Escher meets Islamic Art’ – 12 July to 3 November 2013, Park Hall Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and ‘Escher in het Paleis in The Hague.

Hüseyin Sen, Mirjam Shatanawi and the Tropenmuseum kindly supported the creation of this article. Wim van Sinderen was quoted in “Escher – een achtbaan in de Kunsthal” (Escher –a roller coaster in the Kunsthal), an article by Peter van Eikelenburg originally published in the ’Zwolsche Courant’ newspaper on 18/09/1998.


This post is also available in: Dutch