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Summer in Positano

Summer is in full swing. Not the time to be working hard. That is something for autumn, winter and early spring. At least, that was the timetable to which Escher largely adhered throughout his working life. If you look at the months he worked (these are known from 1922 onwards), they usually span September to May. It is a logical consequence of his approach; in spring and summer he went out to get inspiration, to take photos and to draw. In autumn and in winter he developed these preliminary studies into woodcuts, wood engravings and lithographs.

Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions to this rule. 43 exceptions to be precise. Life and work of M.C. Escher, under the editorial board of J.L. Locher, is the standard work about the artist and in it 448 works are defined. Linoleum cuts, woodcuts, wood engravings, lithographs and mezzotints. No drawings—these are kept beyond the scope of this catalogue. Hence around 10% of all Escher’s work was produced in the summer months. Autumn, winter and spring each account for approximately 30%. Not an exact investigation.

These ‘summer works’ include early Italian landscapes, a number of works from the war years (when Escher was unable to travel), a genuinely ‘summery’ work like Phosphorescent Sea as well as some of his most famous works. Verbum, Balcony, Horseman, Up and Down, Relativity, Plane Filling II, Sphere Surface with Fish, Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell) and Snakes were all produced in July. August is less well represented. It seems this month for Escher really was holiday month.

One of the August works is (Old) Houses in Positano, from 1934. In May and June, Maurits and Jetta had made another trip to the Amalfi coast from their home in busy Rome. They had been married for 10 years and were visiting places where they had been together before. One was Positano. In the lithograph he produced of the coastal town, the typical white-plastered vertical houses can be seen with stairs and so-called ‘bread roll roofs’ that were then common in central and southern Italy. Escher wrote about this in a letter from 1969:

‘When it comes to architecture, in my prints I have been strongly influenced by southern Italian buildings, where Norman, Romanesque, Saracen and Moorish influences can often be distinguished. I am fond of “bread roll” domes and flat, whitewashed roofs and plastered walls (see Dream, Cycle, Print Gallery, Belvedere, Ascending and Descending, Waterfall). Almost all these elements I saw on the Amalfi coast (Positano, Amalfi, Atrani, Maiori, Minori, Ravello). My prints exude a form of nostalgia.’

What is special about the lithograph (Old) Houses in Positano is the way in which he isolates the group of houses and rocks from their setting. He leaves out all context, leaving the image appearing to float, which in fact gives rise to an impossible shape. He had used the bread roll roofs before, including in Atrani, but this was the first time he had positioned his subject so starkly on the virgin paper.

Some examples of ‘bread bun roofs’

M.C. Escher, Atrani, Amalfi coast, lithography, August 1931
M.C. Escher, Cycle, lithograph, May 1938

M. C. Escher, Print Gallery, lithograph, May 1956
M.C. Escher, Belvedere, lithograph, May 1958

M.C. Escher, Ascending and Descending, lithograph, March 1960
M.C. Escher, Waterfall, lithograph, October 1961

More Escher today