M.C. Escher is undoubtedly the most famous graphic artist in the Netherlands. But he was certainly not the only one, as evidenced by our exhibition Graphic Grandeur: Escher and his Contemporaries. Escher was in contact with fellow graphic artists and in a number of cases this also led to joint exhibitions. He was trained as a graphic artist and was indeed an artist, but he struggled with that label all his life. He situated himself more in the tradition of artist-as-craftsman. To be able to make graphic art, it was first and foremost important to have a solid mastery of the necessary techniques. That was true for Escher himself as well as for colleagues. He always appreciated meeting graphic artists who were also masters of their craft. He liked to surround himself with these craftsmen.
The final print in Graphic Grandeur: Escher and his Contemporaries is an ode not to Escher, but to the first royal resident of this palace: Queen Emma, the Queen Mother. In this 1897 lithograph by Jan Toorop (1858-1928) we see Emma and her daughter Wilhelmina on a visit to Gouda. The print features all kinds of objects associated with industry in Gouda at the time, such as pipes and candles. The litho is made in Toorop’s distinctive Art Nouveau style, recognisable by its strong contours with graceful lines and exuberant decorative elements. This style was also popularly called the Salad Oil Style, in response to the iconic decorative poster that Toorop made for the Nederlandsche Oliefabriek (Dutch Oil Factory) in Delft.
The history of printmaking goes back for centuries. So it is no wonder that a great range of printmaking techniques have been developed over time. From woodcut to copper engraving and from mezzotint to screen printing. Moreover, many graphic artists have successfully added their own personal twist to this ancient craft. By experimenting they paved the way for technological improvements, but also for new modes of artistic expression. Experiments formed part of printmaking from the very beginning. In the 17th century, for example, the Dutch artist Hercules Seghers inked his etchings with oil paint, bringing color to the black-and-white world of etching.
Memento mori: this old Latin phrase reminds people that we will all die some day. This saying is the gloomy subject of the simple yet direct woodcut of Julie de Graag (1877-1924). De Graag was a talented graphic artist and her work was highly stylised. Influenced by sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa and De Stijl’s Bart van der Leck, she increasingly omitted details, as her linework grew simpler and more direct.
The term homo universalis, meaning universal man, aka polymath, was coined in the Renaissance by the writer, philosopher and musician Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Leonardo da Vinci is often seen as the quintessential polymath. In his case, this referred to his mastery of the complete spectrum of sciences. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-332 BC) is considered to be the first homo universalis. The term is at times applied incorrectly, but Richard Roland Holst (1868-1938) definitely qualifies. In the database of the RKD, the Netherlands Institute for Art History, he is described as an author, sculptor, scene-painter, Academy director, etcher, glass painter, professor, illustrator, lithographer, furniture designer, designer, painter, draftsman, maker of woodcuts and muralist. A universal man of the arts, in other words.
The tradition of portraiture goes back centuries. An entire room is devoted to this subject in the exhibition Graphic Grandeur: Escher and his Contemporaries. You are not the only one looking here in this gallery. Lots of eyes are looking back at you, too: from Beethoven to a stylised dog, and from Escher’s wife Jetta to a Dutch General with one eye. As soon as the exhibition opens to the public (hopefully as soon as possible!), you can look and be seen here.
Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita was a gifted artist, painter and printmaker with an idiosyncratic signature who occupies a special place in the canon of art. But above all he is the discoverer of M.C. Escher, the man who made the architecture student choose the profession that would make him world-famous. The sorcerer's apprentice was to outshine his discoverer and things slowly grew quieter around De Mesquita. On 31 January 1944 he was arrested by the Nazis. He died shortly afterwards in Auschwitz concentration camp. Escher was devastated and the death of his teacher made a deep impression on him. Nowadays the name of Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita is often directly linked to that of Escher, but there is still plenty to say about the teacher.
With Belvedere, Waterfall and Ascending and Descending, M.C. Escher created three iconic prints based on impossible figures: a cube, a triangle and a staircase. He invented the one for Belvedere himself, but the impossible triangle and the infinite staircase were presented to him by the British mathematicians Lionel and Roger Penrose. These figures were just thought experiments for Penrose Senior and Penrose Junior. But there was someone who had been obsessed with them all his life: Oscar Reutersvärd. This Swedish artist and art historian, who can be regarded as the archetypal father of the impossible figure, passed away on 2 February 2002.
Between March and June 1931, Escher created his Emblemata, a series of small woodcuts that were accompanied by a motto in Latin and a poem in Dutch. The mottoes and poems were written by art historian G.J. Hoogewerff, director of the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome and a friend to Escher. One of those prints is Retreat. It features a birdhouse, hanging from a tree.
2020 has passed. A year no one will ever forget. But even in this crazy year, we brought you many stories about the life and work of M.C. Escher. All the images we used are collected in this video.
We thank everyone for your attention this year and onwards to a hopeful 2021!