On 5 March 1965 Escher received the culture prize of the city of Hilversum. He gave a lecture in which he demonstrated once again how funny he could be. For many people, however, the name Escher calls to mind an image of a bearded, strict, precise man labouring away on mind-boggling prints in the isolation of his study.
This image existed in his own time too and it’s one that Escher initially endorsed in his lecture:
‘By nature I am not spontaneous. Creating a graphic print demands patience and deliberateness and the ideas that I want to express in it usually come to life after careful consideration. Therefore, I mostly spend my time in a quiet studio and, however beneficial it might be to practicing my profession, it does not foster eloquence.’
He followed this by playing with the image by emphasising a fear of spotlights:
‘I have a confession to make. When the secretary to the panel of judges told me this wonderful news a few weeks ago, my first reaction was not one of joy but one of fear. My first thought was: argh, now you will have to come out of your shell and jump through hoops for a whole evening!’
But in the rest of his lecture, and also in the way he delivered it, Escher showed himself to be a capable storyteller, drawing his audience into his world. The ineloquent labourer proved himself to be an inspired artist who approaches his public with confidence. Though he thought of himself more an artisan:
‘If I am not mistaken, the words “art” and “artist” did not exist during the Renaissance and before: there were simply architects, sculptors and painters, practising a trade. Printmaking is another one of these honest trades, and I consider it a privilege to be a member of the Guild of Graphic Artists. […] I am one with all my heart and soul, though I find the term “artist” rather embarrassing. That is why, Mr Mayor (and this concludes my lecture), I would like to receive this prize as “just” a graphic artist. If I can say it like this. I hope you approve of me accepting it like this.’
Of course, it was Escher’s prerogative to say this, but the world knows better now. He indeed was an artist. An artist who left behind a body of work of which he can be very proud and which we keep on displaying to the world with love and dedication.
Postscript: another quote from his lecture shows Escher’s sense of humour:
‘But things can go strangely in a person’s life. When I became a student at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts I was in with a shot at becoming a useful member of society. My parents registered me as a student in architecture; but that school also taught the graphic arts. S. Jessurun de Mesquita was the one responsible for doing so, and I have every reason to remain grateful to him, first as a teacher and then as a paternal friend, for the rest of my life.’
In other words, if Escher had not come across De Mesquita, he might have been able to do ‘something useful’ with his life.