Today is the start of the 'Boekenweek' (Bookweek), a nice occasion to highlight an artwork which is seen less and less: a bookplate. Escher created several of them, mostly for friends. The first one when he was 17, for his own library.
The one you see here, from 1946, was for his neighbor in Baarn, engineer Albert Ernst Bosman. He must have been a bookworm, looking at the one Escher pictured in this bookplate. He didn't know it yet but this neighbour would be of great significance to him. Bosman was the one to bring him in contact with Hans de Rijk. The man of many pseudonyms.
Escher met him as friar Erich, member of the congregation of Saint Louis in Oudenbosch. This Erich was fascinated by the print Up and Down, which hung on the wall of his classroom. He knew Albert Bosman and this is the one who brought artist and admirer together. It was the start of a lifelong friendship. Under the name Bruno Ernst this Erich teached math at the academy for teachers, where he also founded the magazine of mathematics Pythagoras. After they met in August 1956 they saw each other often, De Rijk always as friar Erich. It took Escher several months to find out his real name. Escher was captured by this young man (he was 30), while he was capable of explaining complex mathematical issues in a simple way. One print after another was discussed during these meetings and also the sketches were included to get a complete picture.
Much later, in 1970-1971, the two would repeat this discussion more systematically. During a period of two years and in weekly meetings Eschers complete body of work was analysed, De Rijk asking the artist about his intentions for each print. In 1976 this very fruitful change of ideas would lead to the much praised standard work The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher.
On 5 March 1965 Escher received the culture prize of the city of Hilversum. He gave a lecture in which he illustrated once again how funny he could be. With many the name Escher brings to mind the image of this bearded, strict and precise man who lonely labours away in his study on his mindboggling prints. This image existed in his time too and in his lecture Escher initially endorses this:
"By nature I'm not spontaneous. Creating a graphic print demands patience and deliberateness and the ideas which I want to express in it, usually come to life after careful consideration. Therefore, I mostly spend my time in a quiet studio and, how beneficial it might be to following my profession, it doesn't help my eloquentness." He follows this by playing with the image of the fear of the spotlights: "I have a confession to make. When the jury-secretary told me this wonderful news a few weeks ago, my first reaction was not one of joy but one of fear. My first thought was: ai!, now you'll have to come out of your shell and jump through hoops for a whole evening."
But in the rest of his lecture, and also in the way he delivered it, Escher shows himself a capable storyteller, taking his public along into his world. The ineloquent labourer proved himself to be an inspired artist who approaches his public with confidence. Though he thought of himself more an artisan:
"If I'm not mistaken, the words 'art' and 'artist' did not exist during the Renaissance and before: there were simply architects, sculptors and painters, practicing a trade. Print-making is another one of these honest traded, and I consider it a privilege to be a member of the Guild of Graphic Artists. I am one with heart and soul, though a find the term 'artist' rather embarassing. That's why, mister mayor (and this concludes my lecture), I'd like to receive this prize as 'just' a graphic artist. If I can say it like this. I hope you approve of me accepting it like this."
Of course it was Escher privilege to say this, but the world knows better now. He indeed was an artist. An artist who left a body of work of which he can be very proud and which we keep on showing to the world with love and dedication.
Despite the atrocities of war, some kind of optimism took hold of Escher at the end of February 1943. It was fueled by nature. On 20 February he writes in his diary: two butterflies and lots of snowdrops around farmers gardens', and on the 22nd: 'first song of the blackbird.' Cheered up he started working on 3 March 1943 on the narrative lithograph Reptiles, on a borrowed stone. That's why only 30 copies were printed. During a lecture in Cambridge (19 August 1960) he described this print like this:
'On the page of an opened sketchbook a mozaique of reptiles can be seen, drawn in three colours. Now let them prove themselves to be living creatures. One of them extends his paw out over the edge of the sketchbook, frees himself fully and starts on his path of life. First he climbs on a book, walks further up across a smooth triangle and finally reaches the summit on the horizonal plane of a dodecahedron. He has a breather, tired but satisfied, and he moves down again. Back to the surface, the 'flat lands', in which he resumes his position as a symmetric figure. I was told later that this story shows the theory of reincarnation strikingly.'
This last line must have caused a smile with Escher, while he always laughed about interpretations by others: the madder, the merrier. He also listened in amusement when people stated that the word 'Job' on the packet in the bottom left was a reference to the book Job in the Bible. Nothing was farther from the truth. He had lived in Belgium for several years and Job was a popular brand of cigarette paper there. For the printing of Reptiles Escher stayed in Amsterdam for some days, with printer Dieperink. He had to do 'a lot of tinkering' to the stone 'before a definitive set of copies' could be made, he entrusted to his friend Bast Kist.
Escher called it 'a sketchbook' from which the reptiles free themselves, but it is of course one of his own design sketchbooks. In 1939 he created this Regular division of the plane drawing 'Lizards'. Remarkable and interesting about this periodic drawing is the presence of three different rotation points. Where the three heads meet and where the knees meet. If you copy the figure on transparant paper and put a pin through both pieces of paper, in one of these rotation points, you can turn the transparant one 120 degrees and the figures will cover the ones below completely.
Escher would use these reptiles later on for the woodcuts Development II, Metamorphosis II and Metamorphosis III. The visible regular hexagons in this drawing helped him in creating the lizards for Development II and the panel in Metamorphosis II in which lizards turn into hexagons.
This print was used as an album cover for the band Mott the Hoople. Read this story for more examples of the 'creative' uses of Eschers work.
In a letter to his son Arthur from 27 February 1955 Escher writes about Light in August, a novel by William Faulkner from 1932. He reads it in a translated version.
'... for - Christ! - that gentleman's English is so damned difficult. Thanks to the good English lessons you had at secondary school you may well understand the original. I have not read a modern novel that had such an effect on me for many years, probably not since The Plague by Camus. It is partly that the psychological treatment of the murderer, comparable to Dostoevski's Raskolnikov, though completely different, is unusually gripping. He is one of those rare writers with whom one dare not find fault as a layman and who tower over most of their contemporaries.'
Light in August tells the story of the embittered Joe Christmas, a man of mixed blood. He believes himself to be black despite appearing white. Readers don't know either and this unknowing forms the central irony of the book. Christmas has spent his entire life trying to reconcile with this fact and trying to find some society where he is accepted as a person and not as a mixed breed. Thematically the book deals with religion, identity, prejudice, seksuality, oppression and racial tensions in the American South during the 1930's.
Eschers biographer Wim Hazeu compiled a list of books Escher has read though his life. Incomplete, surely, but a broad palet filled with big names arises. Ranging from Faulkner, Borges, Camus, Caroll, Conrad, Couperus, Dante, Dostojevsky, Elsschot and Gogol to Melville, Moravia, Slauerhoff, Tolkien, Tolstoj, Tsjechov, Wells and Zweig.
Convex and Concave is one of Eschers best known works, a narrative print filled with elements that can be interpreted in two ways.
Short of two years later, in February 1957, he created a lithograph about the same subject but the image in this one is a lot more concise. Cube with Ribbons combines a cube with just one interpretation with some objects that can be convex or concave and can be positioned in front or in the back. Two ellipses which intersect in straight angles have been widened into ribbons. Each of these four halved ellipses can be turned towards or turned away from the viewer and each intersection allows for multiple interpretations. The decorations on the ribbons can be seen as protruding hemispheres with a central dimple òr a dimple with a central hemisphere.
Compared to Convex and Concave this seems a simple print but appearances can be deceiving, as Escher shows so consistently in his work. By provoking these double interpretations with simple shapes, the viewer keeps looking for the logic behind these Möbius strips filled with craters and/or Toffifee candies.
You have just a few more weeks to see some remarkable wood engravings and woodcuts by Escher up close in The Palace. On 12 March they will be returned to the archive to be replaced by new graphic treasures. Earlier we discussed Grasshopper, Tournai Cathedral and Scarabs. Today we focus on St. Vincent, martyr.
The name of this saint derives from the Latin 'vincere': to win or or to overcome. According to the legend this Saint Vincent was captured with his bishop Valerius of Saragossa during the Christian persecutions in the 4th century under emperor Diocletianus. The local governor banished the bishop, but Saint Vincent was tortured horribly in an attempt to let him denounce his faith. Despite these tortures Vincent didn't concede and he defended his faith vigorously. In the end he was dumped into a dungeon filled with shards of glass to await his death. But Vincent was saved by angels who changed the glass into flowers. When the governor understood how remarkable Vincent's survival was and afraid of the people's reaction, he ordered him to be liberated and attended to. But he was barely laid onto a comfortable bed, or his body succumbed. The furious governor ordered the body to be dumped outside the city to be eaten by birds of prey and wild animals. But a raven stood guard next to the body and chased away all predators. Christians buried him at what is now known as Cape St. Vincent. A shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens.
In the woodcut the gigantic raven stands out, looming protectively over the shimmering saint. On a cliff some howling wolves look down in frustration.
In these photos from Maurits' private album happiness jumps off the page. He and Jetta have known each other since Spring 1923. They met in a pension in Ravenna and in the following months their love had grown.
Soon marriage plans were forged, though this was mostly due to their parents. The pair would have rather had some more time to discover the world without this kind of ballast. When Jetta moves to Rome in November 1923 with per parents, Maurits goes with them. He can't be without her. This series was made on 27 January 1924 in (what was probably) the house of the family Umiker on the Via Nicotera in Rome. The sheets hanging out to dry form an improvised background for the lovers and their exchanging glances.
In the years after the war Escher used to make walks after supper in the woods surrounding his house in Baarn. He spend many hours there. To clear his head but also to fill it with new ideas for graphic work. Beginning in 1951 he started to write them down in his diary. One of these notes that year goes like this:
'Traces of car- and bicycle tires, perspectively seen, diagonally; Sloping recess filled with water: puddle. In it the moon is reflected.'
He visualised this idea into the woodcut Puddle, from February 1952. Later, he would describe this print like this:
'The cloudless evening sky is reflected in a puddle which a recent shower has left in a woodland path. The tracks of two motor cars, two bicycles and two pedestrians are impressed in the foggy ground.'
The improbable beauty of the silver glow of the full moon in a cloudless night, is achieved by using a very light green for the sky. It is the type of green that seems grey to the untrained eye. In it a perfectly round moon is cut. The bare branches of the Japanese larch in winter, with its characteristic cones, contrast sharply with the soft colour of the puddle.
Heinz Polzer, born in Switzerland but living and working in the Netherlands, owned a print of Puddle. Polzer is better known as poet, singer and prose writer Drs. P. He and Escher became friends after Polzer wrote to Escher in October 1952, expressing his admiration for the graphic artist. They kept writing each other regularly until Eschers death in 1972.
A puddle in the woods; a seemingly simple idea but that's exacly what makes Puddle a filosofic print about stilness, nature, reflection and remembrance. Escher shows us the infinity of the universe with the track-filled mud as an erratic frame.
You can read more about Puddle in this story by former curator Micky Piller.
On 31 January 1944 Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita was taken away by the Germans. He died in Auschwitz on 11 February. De Mesquita was Eschers teacher, the man who would convince him to start a career in graphic arts.
In an interview in the magazine Vrij Nederland from april 1968 Escher talked about the war and about Mesquita:
'I still have the greatest difficulty with the Krauts. ... I was not involved with the Resistance, but I had many Jewish friends who were killed. My old teacher, de Mesquita. He did not want to go into hiding. They were Portuguese Jews and the Krauts had always stated they belonged to the elite. One night they were all taken away. His son, Jaap, a clever boy, had worked day and night... He had often gone to see the Krauts in order to talk with them about his ancestors. They were not noble, but almost. . . . One bad day they were all gone. In 1944, during the famine winter, I wanted to bring them something, apples... I walked to their house. The windows on the first floor were broken. The neighbors said: "You hadn't heard? The De Mesquitas have been taken away."
This (a drawing) lay on the floor with the impressions of the cleats from the Krauts' boots. It was lying under the staircase. And in his studio everything was a mess, everything on the floor. I took home two hundred prints... Later they were exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum. Wertheim, from 'Kunstbezit', was with in Westerbork. Wertheim survived, the De Mesquita's were taken away. No matter what you do, you cannot forget such things. I cannot... Taken away in the middle of the night. And he could have been saved. I tried so hard to convince him. No he was protected, he said. Why should he hide? Afterwards I blamed myself. But they did not wish to. Jaap in his talks with the Krauts had produced all sorts of genealogical registers. They were half noble. The Krauts found that impressive. They almost never left their home. Really terrible, you know, such sweet people, carried away like cattle to be butchered.'
You have just a few more weeks to see some remarkable wood engravings and woodcuts by Escher up close in The Palace. On 28 February they will be returned to the archive to be replaced by new graphic treasures. Earlier we discussed the wood engraving Grasshopper and the woodcut Tournai Cathedral.
Today we focus on Scarabs, a wood engraving from April 1935. Scarabs are a subfamily of dung beetles. They collect dung from herbivores, like horses and camels, which they form into balls and use to lay in their eggs. Scarabs were revered as sacred in Egyptian mythology because Egyptians believed they erupted from these dung balls spontaneously. In hieroglyphs the image of a scarab stands for 'xpr' which translates as 'to come into being', 'to become' or 'to transform'. In that sense the scarab is a beautiful metaphor for the creative force of the artist. In Eschers case it's also symbolical for the many transformations in his work. In a prophetic way that is: it would take Escher another two years to make his first Metamorphosis.