Escher and the Alhambra

Escher and the Alhambra – Globe Trotter

Amy Ione

Maurits Cornelis Escher was a Dutch artist in the 1920s and 1930s who is famous for using math to create complicated patterns, called tessellations. To create a tessellation you draw a polygon (a multiple sided shape such as a square, triangle or hexagon) and repeat it so there are no gaps between the shapes. An example of a tessellation that exists in nature is a honeycomb.

When Escher was studying art in school he experimented by making designs with simple tessellations. He would draw a picture in the shape of a square or a rectangle and then repeat it. The effect was like ceramic tiles on a floor or a bathroom wall, and so it is called tiling. As you can see in this picture, the pieces of the pattern touch each other so there are no blank spaces.

Though the patterns he drew were interesting, he was frustrated because he wanted to do something more fascinating and creative. For a while, Escher stopped drawing patterns and practiced drawing pictures from nature.

In the autumn of 1922, Escher traveled to Spain for the first time in his life–and he was inspired! During his trip he went to a beautiful place in the mountains of southern Spain, called Granada.

In Granada, on the top of a hill, there is a castle called the Alhambra. The Alhambra was built hundreds of years ago by Muslims who moved from Northern Africa into southern Spain. Inside the walls of the huge castle there are multiple palaces and gardens. Over many years, Arab engineers and artists created intricate decorations throughout the castle. They sculpted the walls and ceilings with carvings so fine that in some places the stone looked like lace.

When Escher visited the Alhambra it had fallen into disrepair. The ancient castle, which had been the home to Muslim, and then later Spanish royalty, was now empty except for visitors who wandered through exploring the beautiful halls. The furniture and huge oil lanterns that once decorated the many palaces were gone, but the priceless art on the walls, ceilings, and fountains remained. Some rooms were dark with reddish stone floors that shifted as though they might collapse with each step he took. Others had bright courtyards in the center, . open to the sky, with fountains and colorful tiles containing tessellations.

Amazed by the mysterious beauty of the palaces, Escher took out his sketchbook and made ink and watercolor paintings of the patterned tiles. This was the style of art he had been dreaming about when he first began to experiment with patterns as a young man.

In 1936, Escher went back to Spain to visit the magical Alhambra again. He and his wife Jetta carefully studied the sculpted ceilings and tiles created by artists over seven hundred years before they were born. Mr. and Mrs. Escher made careful copies of the bright ceramic tiles on the walls and the wooden patterns on the ceilings. Escher was fascinated by figuring out how the patterns were made and teaching himself how to make them. By learning how to copy this traditional Islamic art, Escher found a way to create a new style all his own.

After practicing making tessellations, he started to combine the nature paintings he had done when he was younger with the geometric patterns. The result was drawings like the one you see here. A picture of the Italian countryside is transformed into cubes, then hexagons that morph into a tiling that looks like a mischievous little boy. Escher learned how to make intricate tessellations by copying ones created by other people.

Often. the best way to develop your art is to study the work of other artists and then use your imagination to create something new and special. Just as Escher found inspiration in the mystical palaces of the Alhambra, you can find your own sty]e by studying the history of art.

If you would like to try making tessellations and you have access to the internet, go to www.boxermath.com/plp/modules/online/workshop/toolbox /mosaictool.html?offer_id=PMTHF

Amy Ione is Director of the Diatrope Institute and an international lecturer, writer, educator and painter.

COPYRIGHT 2004 International Child Art Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group