The MC and MC Escher

Steven Pemberton

One of the Netherland's most famous artists of the 20th Century is M.C. Escher (1898-1972), whose works are well known for being mathematically inspired, including with tesselation and using tricks of perspective to create impossible objects. If you don't know who I'm talking about, you might want to go and check out some of his images now, so you can say "Oh, him!".

What is less known about him is that the CWI (the Dutch national research centre for mathematics and computer science, then called the MC – "Mathematisch Centrum" or "Mathematical Centre") helped him on his road to fame.

In July 2020, the 29th International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) took place in Sankt Petersburg, Russia. ICM is the largest mathematical congress in the world, meeting every 4 years since the end of the 19th century (with breaks for World Wars). The Fields Medal, the Nevanlinna Prize, the Gauss Prize, and the Chern Medal are all awarded during the congress.

The twelfth ICM was held in Amsterdam in 1954, with 1550 attendees. The conference committee consisted of 34 people, including 5 ministers, the mayors of the big cities, every university rector magnificus, the directors of major companies including Philips, and others. It was a major event.

The chair of the conference and of its committee, was J.A. Schouten, also at that time chair of the Dutch Koninklijk Wiskundig Genootschap (The Royal Dutch Mathematical Society). As it happened, he was also director, and founder, of the MC/CWI.

The conference was for 8 days in September, and had a large cultural program as well. The opening was in the Concertgebouw, and included two piano recitals; the Concertgebouw Orchestra played, as well as the Holland String Quartet. And at the Amsterdam modern art museum, the Stedelijk, there was an exhibition of works from the then-unknown artist M.C. Escher, whose work, according to the exhibition's catalogue, “shows many mathematical tendencies and is connected in a remarkable way with the mathematical way of thought”.

Escher also gave a successful talk at the conference, and the conference and exhibition gave him not only recognition, but also many new contacts and friends in the mathematics world. He met and became friends with the British mathematician (Sir) Roger Penrose and the British/Canadian Donald Coxeter. Penrose gave him the ideas for Waterfall and Ascending and Descending, and Coxeter for his Circle Limit series.

The letter from Escher

After the congress, Escher sent the MC/CWI a print as thanks for the help in getting his work to a wider public. The covering letter reads:

Dear Professor Schouten,

Enclosed is the print that I picked out yesterday as a gift for the Mathematical Centre.

I have had surprisingly great pleasure from the model of the stairs that you had made for me. A new print will surely develop from it in the future.

Friendly greetings, and high regards,

MC Escher

For an article (in Dutch) of the ICM in 1954, with several photos, see

The Print Gallery

CWI has one other connection with Escher worth mentioning.

His print "The Print Gallery" depicts a man standing in an art gallery looking at a print of a Maltese port town, a town which contains the very art gallery with the man looking at the print in it, but warped in such a way to make a single image. In the middle of the print is an unfilled gap, where Escher has signed his name; presumably he didn't fill the gap because it was too hard to work out what should be in there.

In 2003, the brother of another director of the CWI, H. W. Lenstra Jr, and colleague Bart de Smit, worked out the mathematics of the image (it is drawn on an elliptic curve over the field of complex numbers), and along with programs written by yet another well-known CWIer, Joost Batenburg, calculated what should be in the gap, and printed the result.

Details of their treatment of "The Print Gallery" are at and

(This article was originally published in we@CWI, the house magazine of the CWI in April 2020. Many thanks go to Annette Kik for help in researching it.)