Between March and June 1931, Escher created his Emblemata, a series of small woodcuts that were accompanied by a motto in Latin and a poem in Dutch. The mottoes and poems were written by art historian G.J. Hoogewerff, director of the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome and a friend to Escher.
One of those prints is Retreat. It features a birdhouse, hanging from a tree. An innocent image suffused with new significance by the title. But the accompanying motto and poem serve to bolster this effect. Although Escher was not exactly a fan of people searching for meaning in his work, the Emblemata certainly tempt people to do just that.
The Latin text reads: Latebra tuta depravatio animi
Which could be translated as: A safe retreat, a corrupted soul
The Dutch poem would roughly translate to: A refuge pure and fine,
Corruption, too, at best,
A half-unnatural nest,
A dwelling to mankind.
Escher and Hoogewerf thus convey a two-sided message: it is nice to have a hideout, but staying in it can lead to degeneration and a corrupted mind. This makes Retreat a neat metaphor for life in lockdown. Man is forced to lock himself up in his house. But do so for too long and one will run the risk of moral decay. Although the current lockdown has the Netherlands and neighboring countries firmly in its grip, we hope that we will soon be able to get out and about again and resume normal life.