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A light in the dark

Around 1930, Escher was not a happy man. He struggled with his health, he was unable to sell his work, he had financial difficulties, and he lacked inspiration. He even thought about completely ending his artistic career. It was the art historian G.J. Hoogewerff who drew him out of his dip. He was director of the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome and a connoisseur of the Dutch and Flemish old masters. He asked Escher to make a series of emblemata, so-called ‘images with adages‘. Hoogewerff was lyrical about Escher’s work and noticed many qualities in his oeuvre that he also saw in the old masters. This led to a collaboration that would mean a lot to Escher’s career.

Escher created 24 woodcuts and, under the pseudonym A.E. Drijfhout, Hoogewerff wrote a Latin motto and a Dutch poem with every woodcut. In a long article about Escher’s work, published in the leading Dutch magazine Elseviers Geïllustreerd Maandschrift, Hoogewerff sang his praises about Escher. The article would mean a lot in his recognition as a graphic artist. The support he received gave Escher the boost he needed to continue. The book XXIV Emblemata – Dat zijn zinnebeelden was published in the summer of 1932, by publishing house C.A.J. van Dishoeck in Bussum.

Emblemata contains prints like Toadstool, Butterfly, Flint and Palm Tree. In these days before Christmas and in the run-up to the new year, we draw attention to another woodcut from the Emblemata series: Candle.

A single candle, almost burned out, shines in the dark. The only light comes from the flickering flame and the pattern that appears on the surface on which it stands. Escher subtly plays with dots and lines, making maximum use of the strong contrast that is possible in a woodcut. The poem that Hoogewerff wrote for it, goes as follows (translated from Dutch):

‘I am myself: a light,
In me you find your fate.
So be not blind to the truth,
shining from my glow.’

The Latin motto is ‘Vivo! Anima trepidans in me absumitur’. In English this would roughly translate as: ‘I’m alive! A trembling soul is consumed within me’.

Incidentally, emblemata are characterized by the fact that the Latin motto, the Dutch poem and the image together form the meaning. The image is not an illustration, but a link between motto and poem. One cannot do without the other. It is up to the viewer to extract the meaning in his or her head from text and image. In order for his woodcuts to fulfill that bridging function, Escher had to look for recognizable images. Images that were given new meaning by the context, such as a flickering flame in the dark.