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A Parade of Portraits

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 Zeeland farmer. As soon as the exhibition opens to the public (hopefully as soon as possible!), you can look and be seen here.

During the time that Escher was a student at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts, he was frequently taught how to make portraits. His teacher at the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita (1868-1944), taught him all he needed to know about printmaking, including plenty of lessons in portraying humans, and animals. The focus is on the faithful representation of people and on properly understanding the correct anatomical proportions on paper. When starting out, artists often have problems with the latter in particular. A well-known example is Piet Mondrian, who, as an artist who recently graduated from the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, wanted to participate in the prestigious Dutch art prize Prix de Rome. He tried to enter twice but never made it through to the final round. Human anatomy got the better of him.

We also see Escher struggling with this in the beginning. The female nudes he creates during his college days are a little awkward at times. Over the years, however, he learns to portray the human form in a woodcut and later also a lithograph with ever greater efficacy. A good example is the loving portrait of his wife Jetta in 1925. Her gaze is directed downwards and she is tenderly holding a flower in her long fingers. Escher uses short stripes to make her face white and thus animated, whilst leaving a lot of black in her dress – except for a few longer stripes – to create a diamond pattern. A successful portrait in which Escher extensively uses the technique of the woodcut to create an idiosyncratic image.

Though Escher produced a number of portraits at the start of his artistic career, he turned increasingly away from the genre as time went on. In 1968, four years before he died, he said:

“Making a portrait is something I cannot deal with psychologically. A chap sitting in front of you, that’s much too much of a hindrance to me. I’ve only made a portrait of myself a few times, in the mirror. People soon confound me”.

Escher’s self-portraits in mirrors make him world-famous. The challenges of human anatomy that he faced in the beginning are no longer a problem.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere, lithograph, 1935
M.C. Escher, Three Spheres II, lithograph, April 1946

The portraits by Escher’s Dutch contemporaries in Graphic Grandeur show the diversity of graphic art, with portraits of both humans and animals in a wide range of styles. Perhaps one of my favourite portraits in the exhibition is César Domela’s portrait of his father from 1923. Domela (1900-1992) is one of De Stijl’s lesser-known artists. He produced some twenty paintings in the abstract style of this art movement, but then abandoned its stricter rules to experiment more with colour and form. Graphic art was also one of Domela’s favourite mediums, as you can see in this powerful early portrait. Domela’s father is Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919), the politician who started the socialist movement in the Netherlands. The portrait is not exactly a loving one; its sleek style trumps any attempt at a faithful portrayal of a valuable family member. There are only four white areas in the print; the rest is black. The largest white area is the forehead, nose and characteristic beard of his father. Three smaller white geometric shapes together form his eye. With minimal means, the son presents his father powerfully and in profile.

Another striking face in the exhibition is Old Man (1906-1907) by Jacoba van Heemskerck (1876-1923). From 1910 onwards this artist was inspired by luminism and cubism. Her free works of art were influenced by anthroposophical ideas and were geared towards expressing an inner world by means of striking colours and loose lines that divide her paintings and prints into planes. In 1906 and 1907 she produced a number of lithographs that are further removed from her signature expressionist style. An old fisherman or a farmer from Zeeland is her subject. The lithographic technique lends itself well to depicting a face in great detail, because many shades of grey can be used. The light shining on this man, depicted in lighter grey, reveals his characterful face. The level of nuance of the lithograph is unsparing, with not a single wrinkle missed.

Matthijs Maris (1839 – 1917) did not try to match that precision of Jacoba van Heemskerck’s lithograph. The brother of the Hague School artists Jacob and Willem deliberately concealed his paintings in a kind of haze; as if you just can’t see what he wanted to portray. One look at the artwork is not enough. The atmosphere of this etching also has this mysterious and dreamy feel. The etching starts lighter at the bottom with coarser scratches from the etching needle. The more your gaze rises, the darker the etching becomes. The difference between the veil and her hair is difficult to distinguish, her eyes seem closed. The image does not have to be precise to convey the serene look.

Has this piece piqued your curiosity? These three prints and many other portraits by such artists as Charley Toorop, Jan Veth, Julie de Graag, Dick Ket and Chris Lebeau are on display in the exhibition until 6 June. Other themes from both Escher’s work and that of his Dutch contemporaries also recur, such as nature, reflections and impossible depictions. Experimental, classical or extremely simplified: the prints by Escher and his Dutch contemporaries in Graphic Grandeur attest to the richness that graphic art can offer.

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