M.C. Escher created illustrations for texts by other people in 1921, 1931 and 1932. But after Flor de Pascua, XXIV Emblemata and De vreeselijke avonturen van Scholastica (The Terrible Adventures of Scholastica) respectively, he was done with it. He no longer wanted to be associated with the book illustration profession. When the bibliophilic De Roos Foundation asks him in 1956 to illustrate a story by Belcampo, he refuses on principle. In his letter to the secretary of the De Roos Foundation, C.J. (Karel) Asselbergs, he says that he is not an illustrator by nature and that he considered illustrating a pure waste of time. He sees it as his duty to visualise his own personal thoughts. He proposes to make a book for De Roos himself, containing ‘word illustrations’ for his own prints.
Up early this morning to join the three Germans, the Stern family, on a trip to Giarre by train to see the same lava flow (from 1928) that I already saw and drew three years ago. There, I find a particularly typical subject: a house with a beautiful palm behind it, spared from the heavy lava destruction and completely surrounded by black lava.
Escher wrote this in his travel diary on 4 May 1936, detailing his voyage on and around the Mediterranean. The house — the subject of a drawing and (in August) of a lithograph — had (almost) fallen prey to a powerful opponent: Mount Etna.
One of the most wondrous prints by M.C. Escher is (Two) Doric Columns, a wood engraving in three colours that he created in August 1945, just after the liberation. After Balcony, it was the second new print that Escher produced following the euphoric days in May that year.
On July 29, 1961, the article How to read a painting (Adventures of the mind) by art historian Ernst Gombrich appears in the famous American magazine The Saturday Evening Post. Gombrich describes a number of Escher's prints in detail. The sub-heading reads: "By visual paradoxes the artist shocks the viewer into the realization that there is more to art than meets the eye." A phrase that can clearly be related to Escher. The article generated a lot of extra interest in Escher's work.
In the spring of 1931, Escher and his wife travelled together along the Amalfi coast, an area of which they both had fond memories, not least because they met there in 1923. They visited places like Vietri, Puntone, Scala, Positano, Praiano and of course Ravello. Here stood the Albergo dell Toro, the hotel where Maurits and Jetta first set eyes on one another. The town has special significance for them and is given prominence in Escher’s work too. He was particularly affected by the Moorish motifs he found in the town, including the ones in the Duomo. He did several drawings and took several photos in Ravello and the town can also be seen in a series of prints that he produced in the early 1930s. One is San Giovanni, Ravello (in Campidoglio), Ravello. A wood engraving from February 1932.
M.C. Escher experimented in various prints with transforming and converging shapes. Early examples of this are Development I (1937) and Development II (1939), Day and Night (1938), Sky and Water I (1938) and II (1938), Verbum (1942) and Metamorphosis I and II (1937 and 1939-1940). In these prints, objects and animals change from one recognisable form to another (transform) or they merge into an end form or end point (converge). He often managed to combine these two principles in a single print, for example in the wood engraving Butterflies from June 1950.
To many, Escher’s impossible buildings are the highlights of his oeuvre. These are the prints that visitors look for when they come to our museum. They stand in front of them and discuss with their family and friends what they see happening before their eyes. In that respect they really are conversation pieces. If you take ‘impossible’ in a broad sense, Up and Down, House of Stairs, Relativity, Convex and Concave, Print Gallery, Belvedere, Ascending and Descending and Waterfall can be defined as impossible buildings. But it is the last three of these that Escher himself referred to as such and which are also the ones most open to interpretation. ‘Look, see that? That’s impossible, right?’
‘I used to love Grimms’ fairy tales a lot. As a child, even as a boy, I was very moved by them. Now I’m rereading The Hobbit, by Tolkien, the journey of those dwarfs. It’s so far removed from reality. Why (gaze stripped of all playfulness) do we have to endure this miserable reality all the time? Why can’t we just play?’
Escher said this in the long interview with journalist Bibeb, printed in weekly magazine Vrij Nederland on 20 April 1968. He was known to many as a serious and straightforward artist, but this quote once again makes things less clear-cut.
French philosopher, journalist, writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus wrote his novel The Plague in 1947. The book was a direct response to the horrors of World War II. The disease itself and its defeat are a metaphor for the fight against the Nazis, the brown plague. In the current corona crisis, war is a distant concept for most of the affected countries, but other than that the parallels between the book and the bizarre reality of 2020 are striking. Escher attentively read The Plague and other works by Camus. And it is back in the spotlight now.
During the war, Escher had other things to worry about but, after the liberation in May 1945, he released the brakes on his productivity and creativity. But the start was a difficult one. He had to get used to freedom and initially limited himself to reprinting old prints and selling them. The first creative result was the lithograph Balcony, created in July 1945.