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Graphic arts friends

M.C. Escher is undoubtedly the most famous graphic artist in the Netherlands. But he was certainly not the only one, as evidenced by our exhibition Graphic Grandeur: Escher and his Contemporaries. Escher was in contact with fellow graphic artists and in a number of cases this also led to joint exhibitions. He was trained as a graphic artist and was indeed an artist, but he struggled with that label all his life. He situated himself more in the tradition of artist-as-craftsman. To be able to make graphic art, it was first and foremost important to have a solid mastery of the necessary techniques. That was true for Escher himself as well as for colleagues. He always appreciated meeting graphic artists who were also masters of their craft. He liked to surround himself with these craftsmen.

The main place he did this was in an association. The Vereniging tot bevordering der Grafische Kunst (‘Association for the Advancement of the Graphic Arts’), usually called ‘De Grafische’, had been founded in 1912. That association organised one or more exhibitions every year, often in reputable museums and exhibition spaces. Throughout its existence, De Grafische meant a lot to its members, not least because of the revenue generated by the exhibitions. Visitors could purchase the exhibited works immediately, and many of them did so. Other reasons for the association meaning a lot to its members include the fact that it gave them an opportunity to exhibit, that it served as a kind of hallmark of quality and that developments in the field of graphic art were made visible to a wide audience. If you were a visitor to a new exhibition of De Grafische, you knew you were ‘up to date’ again. In addition, the exhibitions offered participating artists the opportunity to see and discuss each other’s work

A mere 200 graphic artists were members of De Grafische in the 20th century. One of them was M.C. Escher. He became a member in 1931, and in that same year he took part in his first group exhibition.* He was to do so many more times. In 1947, he was elected to De Grafische’s board. He had no administrative experience, but as an archivist his main task was to keep a chest of archives and prints, which was no problem. At annual meetings, he would show the chest unchanged, and it would quickly be closed again **. For Escher, the importance of his position lay chiefly in the opportunity it gave him to exchange experiences with the other members. The fact that Escher was now highly regarded also made it interesting for the De Grafische to have him on its board.

Catalogue of the exhibition in Boijmans in 1952, with a woodcut by M.C. Escher on the front. Image: Catawiki
Catalogue of the 1957 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum

In addition to the many group exhibitions in which Escher took part, he also exhibited several times in smaller groups. With two, three or more colleagues, and sometimes with just one. In late 1949, Escher exhibited for the first time when J.C. Ebbinge Wubben, Director of Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam (now Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), who organised an exhibition encompassing work by three graphic artists: Harry van Kruiningen, Wout van Heusden and M.C. Escher.

The latter was very enthusiastic about this group exhibition, as he wrote to his friend Bas Kist***:

My work has never been so well-cared-for and displayed in such an ideal space. Graphic art is evidently close to Ebbinge Wubben’s heart; he spared no expense to make it as good as possible. Each of the three of us has a room to himself; the work may be very diverse (my room is located between the other two, and the work of v. Heusden, a sophisticated etcher, is [like that of v. Kruiningen] much ‘more modern’ than mine; almost completely abstract), but we don’t bite one another. On the contrary. I believe that the marked contrasts make the exhibition more palatable to the public.

Wout van Heusden, Branding (Surf), etching and aquatint, 1952. Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
The woodcut Animal with four feet and three heads by Harry Disberg next to Dragon by M.C. Escher in the exhibition Graphic Grandeur. Photo: Gerrit Schreurs.

So Escher enjoyed it. In 1950, he exhibited with Harry van Kruiningen on two occasions and in the years that followed he appeared several times in a four-man show, again with Van Kruiningen and Van Heusden, supplemented by J.M. Prange. For the exhibitions with these four graphic artists, Escher created a vignette in 1952 in which the names are linked horizontally and vertically, with a ‘4’ in the background as a shadow image. In 1956 Prange left the ‘group’ and was replaced by Harry Disberg. In this composition and under the name Vier Grafici (‘Four Graphic Artists’) the four exhibited several times between 1957 and 1959. The four also had their own logo, a white 4 on a black background. It is not entirely clear why Escher felt so at home in this group of four, although he did note that the contrasts between the four added value for both the artists and the public.

Dr F. Vercammen, who reviewed the group exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) in the Nieuwsblad van het Zuiden in 1959, gave the following account:

It may seem strange that four seemingly so disparate figures as Disberg, Escher, Van Heusden and Van Kruiningen should form a close bond, which in recent years has seen them all emerge as a group, but in reality, it is not so strange. Three factors drove them together and keep them together. First, there is the unique craftsmanship, as well as a pure notion of the graphic arts as an independent art form. No longer in the service of something else, for example as illustration or means of reproduction, but force to be reckoned with in its own right, with as much claim to an independent existence as an oil painting. Add to this a great sensitivity and response to the spirit of the time. The works of the four of them are steeped in contemporary events. Disberg’s Portrait of an Atomic Scientist, Escher’s Relativity, Van Kruiningen’s Winkel van Poésjkin’s Doodkistmaker, Van Heusden’s De Schepen der Dichters gaan Verloren – these are all creations imbued with existential uncertainty, a threat of forces that mankind has called upon and that may one day dominate and destroy their creator, an evolution that threatens to lead to complete dissolution. Finally, there is a desire that arises out of the foregoing, as if by necessity, to escape from that world and, as though in a new Romanticism, to immerse oneself in a mysterious atmosphere, replete with surrealist elements.

Harry van Kruiningen, Animals in the mist, colour lithograph-etching on cardboard, 1956. Private collection © photo MicroFormat
J.M. Prange, skull study, etching, 1937

It is interesting to read how the Dutch press reacted to these group exhibitions. The work of these graphic artists was quite different from each other, which led to preferences in the written press. Wout van Heusden, for example, is called the most fascinating artist in several newspaper articles, including one in a review in the Algemeen Dagblad of the 1959 exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Simon van Adelberg says of Van Heusden:

The most fascinating of the four is the Rotterdam artist Wout van Heusden. His sheets depict a bizarre world, reminiscent of the atmosphere in Pollock’s paintings. Van Heusden’s work is also closely related to Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism. Even though his work is not straightforwardly classifiable as abstract. The atmosphere of his sheets is ominous, brimming with menace and despair. The figures—sometimes recognisable as a horseman, a ship, a standing man—seem to be in a chaos, an emptiness with the shadows of threatening monsters. His graphic art is highly suggestive, produced with a beautiful hand and a sensitive touch. The outward chaos is only an illusion. The chaotic and the random are bound by bold black lines.

Disberg and Van Kruiningen also draw Van Adelberg’s attention, but Escher comes off less well:

The work of M. C. Escher is very well known. His shrewd, intellectual constructions hit the spot on every viewing. However, I cannot help but get the impression that his graphics are becoming smoother, mannered. His sheets are all very sophisticated and clever, the prints are beautiful, yet ostensibly tend towards rigidity. The technique is learned and threatens to degenerate into a mannerism.

Responding to the same exhibition, Piet Begeer wrote of Escher in Het Vrije Volk:

Every sheet has a symbolic meaning. But it is a contrived symbolism, the symbolism of a highly focused mind, served up ingeniously without any discernible inner motivation. This work exudes the spirit of the shrewd man who leaves the peasants to the threshing, leaves the sufferings and the joys of mankind for what they may be, and single-mindedly relegates life to the status of an abstract spiritual game. The rare art of the Escher phenomenon is based on an avoidance of the fullness of life, and is therefore devoid of this desirable and necessary fullness of life.

This contrast between great popularity among the public and aversion among the written press often afflicted Escher in the last decades of his life. He was a victim of the idea that an artist who is so popular with the common man can never be a real artist.

But there were also great enthusiasts among the professionals, led by the man who organised the first group exhibition in 1949: J.C. Ebbinge Wubben. He became a great advocate of Escher, brought him back to Boijmans in 1952 and 1959 and also bought a number of prints for that museum. He wrote of the graphic artist ****:

My lingering impression of Escher is that of a singularly “noble”, extremely modest man; the fact that I found his prints so “beautiful” surprised him: I had and have the impression that he thought of himself as a “problem-solver”, like the Renaissance artists Uccello and Alberti, much more of a practitioner and researcher of mathematical and stereometric problems than an “artist”—solving the problem at hand took precedence over the design of the solution.

[*] At the end of 1941, Escher resigned from De Grafische, because he wanted to avoid becoming involved, through a kind of collective membership, in the Kultuurkamer, an initiative that he abhorred. After the war, he rejoined De Grafische.
[**] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 310
[***] Letter from Escher to Bas Kist, 16 October 1949
[****] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 321

Exhibitions with multiple graphic arts friends

Graphical work by M.C. Escher, W. van Heusden and H. van Kruiningen
Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans, 15/10/1949 – 15/11/1949

M.C. Escher and Harry van Kruiningen
Amsterdam: Galerie Le Canard, 1950
Dordrecht: Teekengenootschap Pictura, 1950

Graphical work by M.C. Escher, Wout van Heusden, Harry van Kruiningen, J.M. Prange and guest artist W.J. Rozendaal
Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans, 27/09/1952 – 03/11/1952

Four graphic artists: M.C. Escher, Wout van Heusden, Harry van Kruiningen, J.M. Prange
Arnhem: Gemeentemuseum, 01/04/1953 – 03/05/1953
Zwolle: Hopmanshuis, 09/05/1953 – 17/05/1953
Den Haag: Gemeentemuseum, 12/02/1954 – 03/05/1953

Four graphic artists: M.C. Escher, Wout van Heusden, Harry van Kruiningen, Harry Disberg
Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 26/02/1957 – 02/02/1957
Leiden: Prentenkabinet, 31/05/1957 – 15/06/1957
Arnhem: Gemeentemuseum, 28/02/1958 – 13/04/1958
Rotterdam: Boijmans van Beuningen, 15/02/1959 – 15/03/1959
Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 26/09/1959 – 31/10/1959

Dutch newspaper 'Algemeen Dagblad', 13 March 1959
Dutch newspaper 'Het Nieuwsblad van het Zuiden', 3 October 1959

Dutch newspaper 'Het Vrije Volk', 2 October 1952
Dutch newspaper 'De Volkskrant', 23 April 1953

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