The Escher archive at the Kunstmuseum The Hague (formerly Gemeentemuseum) contains a small storybook from 1898, Escher’s birth year. He read from it to his sons a lot. Given the publication date, one might well imagine that his father had done the same for him. The storybook features a story that served as the inspiration for a woodcut from January 1928: Castle in the Air.
When Escher creates this fairytale woodcut, his eldest son George is one and a half. Jetta will give birth to their second son Arthur in December 1928. The printmaker was therefore rather preoccupied with children and with the ways in which they perceive the world. George once wrote a letter to the person who took care of the transfer of the Escher archive to the former Gemeentemuseum. In it he talked about the reading sessions. He has vivid memories of the
‘feverish nights, lying in bed as a child, while my father read to me by the light of a half-veiled lamp in an attempt to lull me to sleep.’
George mentions in particular the story of The Lost Princess, the ending of which George claims provided the inspiration for Castle in the Air. It describes how the Prince, with the help of a clever little dog, finds his twin sister the Princess imprisoned in a room in a castle atop a rock in the middle of a large sea. All kinds of things threaten to go wrong, but at the very last moment the Prince and the little dog are rescued from their predicament by a turtle, while the castle disappears into a large white cloud and drifts further and further away.
In 1913, when Maurits is 15 years old, the Escher family travels by train and by car to the west coast of France. Among other things, they visit Mont-Saint-Michel (St Michael’s Mount), the island off the Normandy coast that is crowned by a large medieval abbey. At the time, the island was not connected to the mainland. You had to row to it. During the crossing, someone from the family, perhaps Maurits himself, took a photo from the rowing boat.
The similarity with Castle in the Air is immediately evident. As a boy he would undoubtedly have been impressed by the way the rocky island loomed larger and larger as the boat gradually approached. Consciously or unconsciously, those impressions appear to be reflected in the woodcut he creates nigh on 15 years later. He fuses one of his own memories with a fictional fairy tale, thereby creating a print that seems to anticipate his desire to capture the impossible, the wondrous.
His fascination for buildings that rise above their surroundings is in evidence in the photo and print too. Built on a hill, a mountain or a cliff, they are raised into the sky. In his Italian years he would immortalise this fascination countless times. Consider in this regard such prints as Tower of Babel, Citadel of Calvi, Bonifacio, Barbarano, Cimino, Cerro al Volturno, Castrovalva, Aragno, The Bridge, Palizzi, Morano, Pentedatillo, Tropea, Rossano, Santa Severina and Sclafani. Sometimes he uses a worm’s-eye view for those prints, sometimes a bird’s-eye view and occasionally also a central perspective. In all these situations, a considerable difference in elevation is noticeable. This is also the case with Castle in the Air, although there is a magical perspective to be found as well. A castle on a rock detaching itself from the earthly and disappearing into the sky?
The image of a floating rock with a city or a castle on it naturally appeals to the imagination. The Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte produced a painting with a similar theme in 1959: Le château des Pyrénées (The Castle in the Pyrenees. In his Rocks in the Sky series, British photographer David Quentin creates the illusion of a floating rock by throwing a rock into the air and photographing it with a very fast shutter speed. The image also invokes two animated movies by Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, as well as Cloud City, the floating city from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Designer and director Saul Bass used a floating rock with a city on it, both in his debut Phase IV (1974) and in his short film Quest (1984). Avatar, the science fiction film that caused the 3D breakthrough in 2009, features a floating mountain range. The sequel is set to be released at the end of 2021 and the floating rocks will recur in the concept art that precedes it. The gigantic spaceship that arrives on earth in the science fiction film Arrival remains suspended over the earth’s surface, awaiting contact with the planet’s inhabitants. Here too a giant shape, which nevertheless appears to be light as a feather, creates a fairy tale-like, disconcerting image.