On 22 June 1931 writer Jan Walch and Escher, together with publisher Van Dishoeck, talked about publishing a story bij Walch which was illustrated with woodcuts by Escher. The story was situated in Oudewater, a town which was known for its 'Heksenwaag' (Witches' scales). It became famous during the 16th century because people accused of witchcraft were offered an honest chance of proving their innocence. In many cities and countries such trials were usually rigged, resulting in the burning or drowning of hundreds of innocent people. Many people accused of witchcraft from all over Europe made a head-over-heels trip to Oudewater to avoid being burned at a stake.
In the Summer of 1931 Escher and Walch had visited the town together. The artist took photos and bought postcards which could help him with his illustrations. Three weeks later he send his first woodcut to Walch: a witch on a broomstick, floating above the sleepy town on a clear night. In total Escher would create six large and thirteen small woodcuts with characters from the story and a series of vignettes. Under the name 'De vreeselijke avonturen van Scholastica' (The terrible adventures of Scholastica) the book was published by Van Dishoeck in 1933. The cooperation was a success and these illustrations were commercially interesting, but Escher was much more inclined to creating his own world.
Scholastica would be the last book Escher would make illustrations for. What's more, he dismissed every association with the profession of book illustrator. When the bibliophile 'Stichting De Roos' (De Roos foundation) asked him in 1956 to make illustrations for a story by Belcampo, Escher responded in principle. In a letter to the board he wrote that he wasn't an illustrator-by-nature.
'My work is not illustrative at all. Illustrating means: adopting the ideas of someone else, while I want to visualise my own, personal (hyper-personal even), thoughts more and more.'
He explained that he considered illustrating as a pure waste of time, while he saw it as his duty to concentrate on the thoughts he expressed in his 'imaginations', a kind of thoughts his colleagues almost didn't have. The story by Belcampo, 'Het grote gebeuren', wasn't to blame though.
'A masterful story, [...] the most visual one he ever wrote',
was Eschers opinion. He proposed to make a book for De Roos with 'word illustrations' for his own prints. This book was published in 1958 and the text contains Eschers ideas for six of his tessellations.
Today is Eschers birthday and it's Father's Day too! That's why we show you a special photo in which father Maurits is posing with his family in front of the house in Ukkel in the fall of 1938. It's also a rare photo while Escher usually holds the camera himself. Escher is flanked by his sons George Arnold (center, born 23 July 1926) and Arthur Eduard (left, born 8 December 1928). Jan Christoffel, born 6 March 1938, is focussed on his brother George rather than looking into the camera.
On 15 June 1961, at 18.05, Escher left Baarn together with his wife Jetta. They took the train to Rotterdam where they boarded the night train to Bern at 20.03. The next morning they arrived in Bern at 7.44. There they were awaited by Eschers friend Paul Keller and his daughter Theresa. Together with Theresa Jetta left for the Keller home in Münsingen. Maurits and Paul took the train to Venice where they boarded the Cagliari.
It was the start of a boat trip which took the two friends to Triëst, Bari, Napels, Salerno, Catania, Messina, Palermo, Algiers, Lissabon, London and Hamburg. We know all this in detail because Escher wrote it down neatly in his travel journal. Like the page you see here, where he wrote that Paul had booked a room in Bern in an ' absurdly expensive, modern and luxurious hotel: Parc Hotel. Half board Frs. 42 p.person!' Escher could afford it by now, but he was never comfortable in spending money easily. Though he enjoyed travelling by boat immensely, it was straining him more and more. It wasn't planned but the trip with Keller in 1961 proved to be his last one by boat.
On June 7 1968, exactly 50 year ago today, 'De werelden van Escher' (The worlds of Escher) , the first Dutch retrospective exhibition of M.C. Escher, opened in het Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. It was motivated by Eschers 70th birthday, on June 17. It certainly wasn't his first exhibition but it was the first time an important art museum, on its own initiative, would show a retrospective of his work. Approached both from an art history perspective and from Eschers personal systematics. The opening was a huge succes. Together with his wife Escher was driven there by his son Jan. The auditorium was packed and in the next hall over a 100 people were standing, unable to enter. Escher was honoured with speeches and he himself gave a short lecture, accompanied by slides. The exhibition was attended by tens of thousands of visitors, who were encouraged by a bold exhibition poster and a long interview in magazine Vrij Nederland on April 20. The exhibition catalogue had to be reprinted in no time and Escher was interviewed by many Dutch and foreign journalists. The reviews were unanimously positive and showed that the authors had really immersed themselves in Eschers work.
Dutch newspaper 'NRC':
"The structure of the exhibition, which enables a multi-sided approach of Eschers work, is one of a kind, the way Escher is unique himself. A second artist to feature in such an exhibition would be very hard to find. Every true enthusiast and connaisseur on the graphic profession should admire him, if need be while dismissing his clever scientific side. His technical control of the woodcut, the wood engraving and the lithograph are masterful in a pure artistic sense. It really is impossible to decide on key works. His themes and the problems they face may change often, but the quality of the design artistically remains on the same level."
And 'De Volkskrant':
"A man of science surprises himself, wants to understand, starts to analyse - an artist amazes himself, he lets the object of his amazement rest in his open hand and recreates it into a inspired image. The rarity of Escher is that his amazement stems from a highest order, a crystal, and that it confirms and explains this order artistically and visually. Out of this encounter an artistic life's work has grown which is unique in the world."
He had to turn 70 to get there, but Escher was finally taken serious by a large audience as graphic artist.
You have 10 more days to view some remarkable prints bij Escher up close. On June 11 they will be returned to the archive to be replaced by new graphic treasures. Earlier we discussed the woodcut The Third Day of the Creation, from a series in which Escher depicted the creation in a stark contrast of black and white.
Today we focus on on a woodcut which doesn't belong to this series, but which does have a Biblical theme. The Fall of Man shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden at the moment they have eaten from from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden. In the shape of a snake they were tempted by the devil, who convinced Eve first after which Adam also ate the forbidden fruit. Escher depicts the two just after Adam has eaten from the apple and is sitting on the ground in dismay. Knowing they have made a grave mistake.
Remarkable about this woodcut is that Escher does not show a snake but some sort of dragon or a large lizard. In doing so, Escher joins an interpretation of this Biblical story in which the animal that tempts Adam and Eve had paws and claws before the fall of man took place. After this fall the animal had to live out his days slithering on his belly, condemned to this fate by God. Other artists like als Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt have used this shape of a dragon. They show Adam and Eve just before the fact, while in Eschers version the two already have eaten from the apple. Remarkable in both Rembrandt's and Escher's version is that the dragon looks ferocious, unlike the more mild interpretations by other artists. A second similarity with Rembrandt is harder to spot. Both show an elephant in the background. The animal symbolises piety and chastity but it also stands for Christ, the only one who can lift up the fallen man.
On May 25, 1930, Escher returned to his hometown of Rome after traveling through the Italian provinces of Campanile and Calabria, together with his friends Giuseppe Haas-Triverio, Roberto Schiess and Jean Roussett. In the autumn and winter he would develop his impressions of that journey into a series of woodcuts and lithographs. As a basis for this he used sketches as well as photographs. He took them during the trip and neatly stuck them in a photo album. At first glance these photographs seem like memories of a beautiful holiday, but most of the landscapes would return in his prints.
On May 22, 1930, the four companions were in the town of Rossano in Calabria. They visited the Oratorio di San Marco, an oratory from the 10th century that is one of the most important examples of Byzantine art in Italy. The building has a Greek floor plan with five characteristic domes on cylinders. This is very similar to the Cattolica di Stilo, the other important example of Byzantine art that the friends had visited a few days before. In February 1931 Escher made a woodcut of Rossano. Not after a photograph, so the artist moulded the landscape like he saw fit. Accentuating the lines that we mere mortals do not see, as if a divine halo lifts it up.
Escher himself wrote a travel report of this trip that was published in De Groene Amsterdammer on April 23, 1932.
'The unknown mountain nests in the inhospitable interior of southern Calabria are usually connected only by a mule track with the railway that runs close to the coast: whoever wants to go there has to walk on foot if he has no donkey at his disposal. I think back to that warm afternoon in the month of May when we the four of us, after a long, tiring ride in the harsh sun, packed with the heavy burden of our backpacks, sweat-dripping and a little gasping, entered the city gate of Palizzi.
Our steps mechanically turned towards the pub. A rather large, cool space, lit only by the hole of the door, the walls may have been chalked white once a long time ago; it smells like wine and there are countless flies. We have known the slight accolade of the people of Calabria for a long time: one is not, like in the Italy-of-the-tourist, accustomed to foreigners; a hostile mood like this one however, we had not encountered before.'
Luckily the zither of Roberto Schiess brought solace. He started playing without stopping.
'Neapolitan songs, pieces of Italian operas, Swiss yolk wisps, Viennese waltzes, cheerful marches. I can not say how long it took; it seemed to me a very long time, and I see it as clear as if it happened yesterday. It was a moving miracle that occurred. When finally the strings were silent and the fast hands stopped, the zither player looked up.
Smiling, sure of his power, and around him a dense hedge of listeners who burst into applause and shouted: Bravo! bravo! bis! bis! ... and the hands once again stroked the strings and it became completely silent again. But for a short time now: it was only a bonus. When the renewed hurricane of applause came to a halt, the tongues loosened: Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you going? A stream of questions and exclamations: the ice had been broken. We had to accept wine, of which we drank too much, which was pleasant and improved our mutual understanding. We drank to the "forestieri", "musica", on Italia, on the Ducce.'
Also read the story From photo to fantasy, in which there are more examples of photographs and the resulting work of that journey.
In May 1937 Escher created Metamorphosis I, a narrative work in which the coastal town of Atrani slowly changes into a grid of cubes who subsequently transform into the shape of a caricatured Asian figure. If Atrani stands for the past in this print, the hooded Asian could be seen as the future. Thinking this through the analogy of Eschers life and that of an old martial arts master becomes an interesting one.
Escher started his training as a young man close to where he lived. Then he leaves for a faraway land, Italy in this case. There he studies and practices hard on his skills. When he returns to his native country he is a master. He can do stuff nobody can. In Eschers case this is an ultimate control over the graphic arts. Martial arts was an unknown phenomenon to Escher. The big difference with a martial arts master is that the latter usually would transfer his skills by starting a school. There he would teach his students so they could learn kung fu, karate, aikido, etc. Escher never had any pupils.
There's no better way to celebrate Mother's Day then with a photo of a happy mother. Maurits created this portrait of his wife Jetta and their firstborn son George in the spring of 1927. The couple just moved to their house at Via Alessandro Poerio in Rome. In the background the majolica tiles can be seen, which Escher designed for the hallway and the kitchen. George (nicknamed 'Jojo') was born the summer before and after living in several temporary houses, the young family finally could call this house their home. This happiness led to a second son in December 1928 and a third one in March 1938.
This work by Escher is a fitting illustration for Liberation Day, the day on which the Dutch celebrate the end of the German occupation in 1945. His birds and fishes free themselves from the firm grip the tessellation holds them in.
Escher created Sky and Water II in the freezing December month of 1938, in stark contrast to the beautiful weather we have in yje Netherlands today. Six months earlier he made a woodcut with the same subject: Sky and Water I. In it all the birds and fishes move to the right, where in II we see them moving both ways. Seen from the top the first black bird flies to the right; the second one flies to the left. Their fish counterparts at the bottom make the same movement. In the next row two birds fly to the right and two fly to the left. As do the fishes in the corresponding row. Then there's a row with three birds right and left and three fishes right and left. In the last row of each half there are four of them.
Because the upper half progresses into the bottom one, and vice versa, the tessellation emerges in which birds become residual shapes to the fishes and the other way around. Looking up from the middle, the white shapes open themselves up and gradually loose their fish shaped silhouettes; they merge and change into a white sky background in which the birds fly. The oppossite happens when you look downwards, starting from the center. Due to this alternating of shape and residual shape it's hard to determine how many birds and fishes this woodcut contains. Does a residual shape of a bird count as a bird? And if so, at what moment does this stop? In writing this all seems more complicated then the viewing of the print does, but it's exactly this viewing which is so difficult. Escher tricks you while you're watching. Time and time again.
You can read more about both versions of Sky and Water in this story by former curator Micky Piller.
There's probably no artist who pictured himself so often as Rembrandt van Rijn did. About forty selfportraits are known. But Escher had a way with it too. Between 1917 and 1950 he made twelve of them, several while being reflected in a spherical mirror. Looking in the mirror he pictures his ow image, the way he sees it but also the way he wants it to be seen. A selfportrait is, like all works based on reality, a view on this reality. Especially with Escher. The viewer wants to see the artist, but he has to deal with the version the artist wants to present of himself at that particular time.
This selfportrait in spherical mirror is the last of four spherical ones but also the last selfportrait Escher made. In his earlier selfportraits he had shown a development from uncertain young man to self-assured artist and from technically simple to a dazzling command of the graphical arts. But in this last selfportrait he takes a few steps back. It's a small and plain spherical mirror image with just the artist, his studio, his paper and his hands. His hands especially. Like he's saying: this is it. This is the heart of the matter. These are my tools. Looking back this plainness and quietness seem ironic: in April 1950 stood on the brink of his international breakthrough. A breakthrough he welcomed but which overwhelmed him too.
You can read more about this self-reflection in Self-portraits 1917 – 1950, a story by former curator Micky Piller.