Escher, the Artist Who Was Fascinated by Mathematics
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Even though I had two weekends in the Hague, I did not see the Girl with the Pearl Earring. In fact, I did not go to see any of the paintings of Vermeer – or Rembrandt, for that matter. The Dutch art museum in The Hague that I went to see instead, was the one about Escher.
I’m sure they would have been amazing artwork to view. And if it’s your first time to Europe to see the Renaissance masters, then definitely do exactly that. But I have already seen some of the best, in Rome. Would I be going because I really enjoyed the Dutch masters? Or would it be just peer pressure?
I could not say, and the doubt tamped down my interest further. Or maybe I’m just an art blasphemer!
I can’t remember which colleague told me about the Escher museum. Maybe Gregg did. Or perhaps it was Jonathan, who is more accustomed to my eccentricities. Anyway, the name was vaguely familiar, so I looked it up.
This was the one. There was no question about it. This is the museum I had to visit.
The M.C. Escher Museum
The Escher collection is displayed in the Hague, within the palace at Lange Voorhout. Hence, the museum is called Escher in het Paleis. Despite the term ‘palace’, it’s not a huge building. Perhaps if it was not associated with royalty, it would be more like a mansion.
My colleague informs me that the Dutch prime minister cycles to work like anyone else. I thought this was not so very surprising, if even the royals are so practical as to live in a compact mansion.
As you go through the palace browsing the Escher collection, spend a moment to look at the chandeliers in the rooms and stairways. Where else would you see eccentric chandeliers shaped like a skull or an umbrella? Designed by Hans van Bentem, it’s like having two museums in one.
Opening times for the Escher Museum
The Escher museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, between 11am to 5 pm. It is closed on Mondays. There are additional considerations for holidays. Check the website for the most up to date information.
Tickets for the Escher Museum
You can get walk-in tickets at the museum itself, and at the time of my visit the prices were:
- Entrance fee for adults: €10
- Entrance fee for children: €6.50 (below 7 enter free)
- Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children): €26.50
There are also package tickets, so if you’re planning on going to any of these other attractions, see if you can plan to do them on the same day to take advantage of this:
- Madurodam (good family attraction)
- Beelden aan Zee (Sculpture by the Sea)
- Panorama Mesdag (check out my article exploring what the panorama craze had been about!)
- Gemeentemuseum (if you’re looking for Mondrian)
Details for additional discounts are at the website.
The Illusions of Escher
Why did I absolutely have to go to the museum dedicated to M.C. Escher? In fact, I read that you would once be looked down upon for liking his type of art. Why this one, and not the proper Dutch masters?
Fortunately for me, in that same year a movie was released which makes it so much easier to explain the awesomeness of Escher’s mind!
Are you quite sure a floor can’t also be a ceiling?Escher, 1963.
This is an art museum where you don’t feel like you have to ‘know’ art, that you’re supposed to feel something or other, or understand that an installation is supposed to mean such and such.
No, Escher’s skill is not quite in brush strokes and paints and causing images to come vividly alive. Rather, it is to construct a virtual reality that is mundane and impossible at the same time – and cause us to accept it nonetheless. One barely notices the shift; two mutually exclusive perspectives seem to exist at one and the same time.
What does it take to make a person believe what cannot be?
Despite not actually having mathematics training, Escher’s work is often described as ‘mathematical’. It is whimsical and imaginative – but unlike other artists of whimsy, structure is never absent from his work. In fact, in his own way, he embraced it.
Therefore, the impossibility of his subjects is all the more astounding, because he somehow used structure itself, the concept that usually limits what is possible, in order to make the impossible. So it’s actually a paradox on two levels. It’s obvious why this abstraction endeared him to mathematicians. You rarely get more meta than this!
It’s this philosophical balance that appeals to me, making him far more interesting than ‘conventional’ artwork. So yes, a Rembrandt is impressive. But it does not cause me to question for days whether the edges of reality are as solid as I perceive it.
I’m also intrigued by the way Escher created and held mutually exclusive realities within an improbable space, where what normally does not happen – could. Like a magician, he removes solid wall to make you see endless reflections, shifts boundaries to depict diversity through structure, and loops space to depict infinite superposition.
An inquiry of the limits of structure commands a particular respect from the scientist. Many discoveries of science happen when limits are similarly tested. When the laws of nature are so well understood, such that we can build the conditions required to discover things that normally happen out of our reach.
After all, what else are laboratory conditions devised to discover elements normally too unstable to be found in ordinary conditions?
The ideas that underlie [my work] often bear witness to my amazement and wonder at the laws of nature that operate in the world around us. If you have a sense of wonder, you realise that their existence is itself a wonder.Escher, 1947.
Escher’s Andalusian Inspiration
As I browsed through the museum, I discovered something I did not know before. However, it did not surprise me, in hindsight.
Out of all his Mediterranean influences, a strong muse was Andalusian Spain, and the Alhambra in particular. Since I have had the good fortune to visit Granada, I immediately saw it once it was pointed out. Indeed, it can be seen in many of his works.
Tessellation: Evolution and infinity
The Alhambra influence is the most striking in his tessellation art. The interlocking, repeating shapes, extending into infinity is reminiscent of the geometry-based art which is the signature of Islamic architecture, and which had some of its finest Golden Age examples in Andalusia*.
But here, Escher brings it up a notch by using organic shapes such as birds and starfish. His masterpiece is Metamorphosis, a really long piece of tessellation art where the interlocking shapes repeatedly shift into new shapes, evolving on and on.
Indeed, he had an insightful eye, zooming towards the structure that reality rests upon. That said structures could be folded and morphed to create – ad infinitum. And indeed, this is the kind of creativity that nature makes. It is the kind of creativity that has substance, that could become real new things.
As a Muslim, this is philosophically very familiar terrain.
Do they not see how Allah begins the Creation, then repeats it?[29:19]
Tesselation in 3D
A section of the collection displays Escher’s tessellation work in 3D. Presumably he drew from his carpentry training to create the sculptures. This section also hosts other optical illusion installations.
I spent some time to gaze at the balls that he made by hand. It is amazing that he could imagine tessellations that lock into each other in 3D space.
What could he have imagined, I wonder, with the mathematics and computing power of today?
Andalusia: The period of Moorish rule in southern Spain, which coincided with a Golden Age of prosperity and advancements in infrastructure, architecture, science, philosophy and the arts. It is also famous for its period of amity between the mixed population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews – Andalusian intellectuals came from all three groups.
Carbon offset information to the Netherlands
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Amsterdam produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,224 lbs CO2e. It costs about $41 to offset this.
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