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, even though 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. In the months that followed, he also produced Doric Columns, Three Spheres I, a woodcut for the Temporary Academy in Eindhoven and the lithograph Magic Mirror.
Balcony is based on a visit to Malta. In May 1935, Escher travelled on the freighter S.S. Verdi from Sicily to this microstate in the Mediterranean. The capital of Valetta is surrounded by three peninsulas, each with a fortified town. Senglea is one of them. In the autumn of 1935, Escher captured the view of the town and cargo ship in front of it in a woodcut.
For Balcony, he used the stacked houses and balconies overlooking the water as the basis for a drawing, starting with only the view itself. In Balcony, the centre of the print is enlarged four times in relation to the edges. He drew a circle to determine the area to be ‘magnified’. The centre of that magnification is the fifth balcony from below, which is slightly different from the four underneath it. The wall in which the balconies are positioned has a diagonal perspective. In the second drawing, which served as the starting point for the lithograph, the fifth balcony is not only featured, but the viewer is also looking straight at it.
Escher strives for the illusion of a bulge on the flat surface, as if it were drawn on paper mache stretched over a balloon. As a result, details from the first drawing are suddenly placed in the centre to attract full attention. It is a principle with which he was very familiar, given his fascination for spherical mirrors. In the years prior, he had already made prints such as Still Life with Spherical Mirror (1934) and Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935) and he would return to this several times later in life. However, the effect in Balcony is not that of a spherical mirror but of a spherical magnifier. He would use this effect again in the mezzotint Dewdrop.
In a 1947 piece in the monthly periodical Phoenix, Escher says about this lithograph:
‘… isn’t it absurd to draw a few lines and then say, this is a house? In a moment of clarity, one can be amazed by this! Such amazement gave rise to this print. So let us not forget that the spatial representation of these blocks of houses where the sun shines is fiction, that our paper remains a flat surface, even though we draw light and dark spots on it. As if some sort of self-mockery, in the middle of the print, a second attempt was made to disturb and break the peace of the plane; we have punched a bump in the paper.’*
The self-mockery that Escher refers to here indicates that he understood the irony of his attempts to produce his own three-dimensional fantasies on a flat surface. He punches the proverbial bump himself but, at the same time, understands its futility. All the same, he continues with it for a while, clearly searching for the illusion of the illusion:
‘I chose the view of a city built on a hill so that, in the plane of the drawing, a powerful plastic suggestion would arise from the perspective of the blocks of houses. That deception is so dear to us, we are so used to it, so immediately ‘in it’ that instantly we forget we’re not dealing at all with a city where the sun shines and a fresh sea breeze blows, but with a piece of paper made from plant fibres (I hope it is not wood), with the occasional printing ink. Not to your liking? Prefer the dream image? Then I will disturb it by creating a bump in the paper on the backside. Now you see the bulged pimple and realise that it is just nonsense, those houses and that sun. But, poor fool that I am, what have I done? This wild attempt to depict the appearance of a creature also appears to be an illusion. Just feel it with your hand: the paper is as flat and smooth as before and I only suggested a suggestion.’
By writing so emphatically that he fools his audience – and himself – it is only fitting to mention René Magritte’s famous illusions, in particular his La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), a surreal oil painting of a pipe with the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe). Magritte really emphasizes the message: this is not a real pipe, but an image of a pipe, merely a canvas painted with oil paint. By painting a recognisable representation, the artist betrays the idea that reality can never be captured on paper. Magritte believed that an artist should place reality within a different context. In his world-famous painting, he does exactly that by adding the caption. Escher does it by knocking a bump in his image.
The houses from Senglea, Malta and Balcony would return in Print Gallery, in which he took an even more extreme approach to deformations on the flat surface.