23 March 1908 saw the birth of Gottfried Wilhelm Locher, a man whose name is barely known to the general public, but who has been of immense importance to the legacy of M.C. Escher. Locher already had an illustrious career in anthropology when he made a number of important contributions to this legacy. He gave lectures and wrote articles about Escher, presenting brilliant interpretations of the richness of his art. He highlighted the bold contrasts in his oeuvre. Between light and dark, day and night, flat and spatial, reality and illusion, latent and manifest, far and near, infinite and finite, order and chaos, reason and emotion and between head and heart. Locher saw Escher as the artist to have managed to bridge the gap between art and science. Locher was also one of the first major Escher collectors. He went out on a limb for the artist, who received scant appreciation until the late 1950s.
Before becoming a professor, Locher worked as an anthropologist and curator. In 1946 he was appointed director of the National Museum of Ethnology. He first encountered Escher in 1953 whilst he was discussing art with contemporary artists, anthropologists and archaeologists and was presented with a book on graphic art. It contained an image of Three Spheres I, a wood engraving by Escher from 1945. Other World and Encounter also featured in the book, but it was the spheres in particular that made a big impression on Locher. He pointed out to the other participants that Escher’s work was very special. They agreed, but thought Escher too cerebral to be considered real art. Locher has fought tirelessly against this impression and the idea that an artist should refrain from excessive use of his brain.
In 1955 he moved from the National Museum of Ethnology to Leiden University to work as a professor of cultural anthropology. Shortly beforehand, he started collecting work by Escher as a substitute for (as he claimed in his contribution to The Worlds of M.C. Escher) collecting for the museum.
After they met in 1955, Escher wrote about Locher in a letter to his son Arthur*:
‘Out of pure enthusiasm, this Locher gives lectures about my prints and compares them to certain Asian art forms. He is unmarried, not rich, so he claims, but buys just about everything I make. A weird but nice guy.’
It was a time in which the work of the graphic artist was still affordable. At Catawiki, a handwritten invoice from Escher to Locher was auctioned in 2015, with prices for the lithograph Predestination, the wood engraving Three Spheres I and the woodcut Puddle. They cost Locher 50, 40 and 55 guilders respectively. When Escher wrote that invoice on 2 July 1954, he had no idea how much his work would be worth years later.
G.W. Locher was not the only Locher who was important to Escher’s legacy. As curator of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, his cousin J.L. (Hans) Locher was also a fanatic collector. He was also co-organiser of the major retrospective exhibition about Escher in that museum in 1968. Locher became acquainted with Escher at a young age. In 1954, as a 16-year-old boy, he and his uncle Gottfried saw the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which was held on the occasion of the International Mathematical Congress. He also saw work by Escher in a number of group exhibitions in which other graphic artists were also exhibited. In 1981, he was editor-in-chief of M.C. Escher, His Life and Complete Graphic Work, the standard work that was published by Meulenhoff. In this way he has contributed significantly to knowledge and visibility of Escher.