To many, Escher’s impossible buildings are the highlights of his oeuvre. These are the prints that visitors look for when they come to our museum. They stand in front of them and discuss with their family and friends what they see happening before their eyes. In that respect they really are conversation pieces. If you take ‘impossible’ in a broad sense, Up and Down, House of Stairs, Relativity, Convex and Concave, Print Gallery, Belvedere, Ascending and Descending and Waterfall can be defined as impossible buildings. But it is the last three of these that Escher himself referred to as such and which are also the ones most open to interpretation. ‘Look, see that? That’s impossible, right?’
‘I used to love Grimms’ fairy tales a lot. As a child, even as a boy, I was very moved by them. Now I’m rereading The Hobbit, by Tolkien, the journey of those dwarfs. It’s so far removed from reality. Why (gaze stripped of all playfulness) do we have to endure this miserable reality all the time? Why can’t we just play?’
Escher said this in the long interview with journalist Bibeb, printed in weekly magazine Vrij Nederland on 20 April 1968. He was known to many as a serious and straightforward artist, but this quote once again makes things less clear-cut.
French philosopher, journalist, writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus wrote his novel The Plague in 1947. The book was a direct response to the horrors of World War II. The disease itself and its defeat are a metaphor for the fight against the Nazis, the brown plague. In the current corona crisis, war is a distant concept for most of the affected countries, but other than that the parallels between the book and the bizarre reality of 2020 are striking. Escher attentively read The Plague and other works by Camus. And it is back in the spotlight now.
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. But 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.
Spring is here. It cannot be stopped by the world's problems. That is why we show you this print. A small wood engraving of 44 x 99 mm, but large in visual richness. This woodcut of a tree with birds and a squirrel is special, because it mirrors the whole image. Because of that reflection, and Escher's play with shape and residual shape and the black and white contrast, the end result is both realistic and abstract. An ode to nature in these dark times.
The Piano di Sant'Andrea is an historic site of ancient Genoa situated on top of a hill of the same name. The Piano is surrounded by the towers of the Porta Soprana. In the Middle Ages, this was the most important gateway to the city. At the foot of the towers lies the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Escher visited Genoa and the Piano di Sant'Andrea in the spring of 1936, when he (partly together with his wife Jetta) made a voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, a journey that brought him considerable pleasure, but also much inspiration. He made photos and drawings that he then developed in wood or on stone in the autumn and winter of 1936/1937. This included woodcuts featuring Venice, Ancona, the tower of Pisa and the cargo ship on which they travelled, wood engravings on Catania and Marseille and a lithograph of Nunziata on Sicily. The journey was also a source of inspiration for one of his first optical illusions: Still life and street. In February 1937 he made this woodcut of the Piano di Sant'Andrea.
The Gianicolo (or Janiculum) towers above the city of Rome directly above the Trastevere district on the west side of the Tiber River. This hill offers fantastic views of the city and is a favourite destination for locals. That must have been the case for Escher as well, especially the park around the Villa Doria Pamphili. Here, in the largest public park in Rome, he was able to escape the noise and chaos of the city. It was less than a 30-minute walk from his home on Via Alessandro Poerio. He took pictures here and incorporated the view into his prints. One of them is St Peter's [seen] from the Gianicolo [Rome], from February 1935.
Development I and Development II are both prints in which Escher attempts to find a satisfactory way to express the concept of ‘infinity’. They show development, but are also part of a development. In October 1937, he showed his collection of tessellations to his brother Beer (Berend), a professor of geology, mineralogy, palaeontology and crystallography at Leiden University. Escher's collection consisted partly of copies of tessellations he had traced in the Alhambra (Granada) and La Mezquita (Cordoba) in the spring of 1936 and partly of ones he had drawn himself. He first started making tessellations some ten years earlier. In his early attempts, he carved an animal shape directly into the woodblock, after which he duplicated it on paper or fabric either mirrored or rotated.
In early February 1935 Maurits and Jetta went to Abruzzo with the Mr and Mrs Leopold, a couple they had befriended. They travelled by bus from Rome to the medieval capital of the region: Aquila. It was not that far, about 75 miles. They then travelled on to Campo Imperatore, a plateau in the Gran Sasso National Park. This, the highest mountain range of the Apennines, is one of the oldest ski areas in Italy: skiing started here in the 1920s. Escher had been planning to move to Switzerland with his family for some time, because of the rise of fascism in Italy and also because his sons’ health would benefit from the Swiss mountain air. This visit to the ski area can be seen as a taster.
The universe of M.C. Escher is governed by harmony, tranquillity, order and peace. Disharmony, unrest, disorder and war are far away. Or serve as a background for the beauty in the foreground. Consider in this regard prints like Contrast (Order and Chaos) and Crystal. Escher sees the world as an everlasting struggle between these extremes. As an artist he had the task of showing the world that order is self-evident, although it sometimes seems remote.