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A Sense of Wonder

10 October 2014 to 27 October 2019

From boredom to optical illusion

A Sense of Wonder was the first exhibition ever to bring together M.C. Escher’s secondary school days with the prints that he would make thirty years later. Escher’s former secondary school in Arnhem shows a considerable degree of correspondence between the real world and a series of post-war prints by Escher. It is generally assumed that after he left Italy in 1935, reality had very little bearing on Escher’s prints. People talk of his ‘mindscapes’, as opposed to the ‘landscapes’ that characterised his earlier work.

M.C. Escher, Other world, wood engraving and woodcut in black, reddish brown and green, printed from three blocks, January 1947
Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', Photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014

A 2014 study by Escher in The Palace showed however that ‘the hell of Arnhem’, as Escher referred to his school days, was extremely significant for important prints such as Other World and Relativity, as well as several other prints that could also be associated with these. This research forms the basis of the exhibition: A Sense of Wonder, from boredom to optical illusion. 

Maurits C. Escher was fourteen years of age when he attended the Hogere Burger School (H.B.S.) in the Schoolstraat in Arnhem, in the east of the Netherlands. He would later describe his time at this secondary school as “a living hell”. When you arrive in this large, stately building, dating from 1904, you are almost instantly greeted by a wide staircase that guides you upstairs. On the next level, you can either turn left, or right to the next – narrower – staircase featuring pseudo Romanesque passageways. We ought to be grateful to this institution, because it inadvertently encouraged Escher to dream and let his imagination run wild. In his mind, the young Maurits C. Escher conjured up images of rotating staircases as well as tumbling, twisting and turning spaces. These images followed him into adulthood, when as a mature artist he explored ways to – seemingly effortlessly – depict different perspectives of the same space.

M.C. Escher, Relativity, woodcut, July 1953
Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', Photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014

Using digital techniques, photographer Gerrit Schreurs created an impression of the staircase in the state it was presumably in during the years 1912-1918: Escher’s school days. These enormous photographic reconstructions were shown for the first time in the exhibition. In A Sense of Wonder the photos could be compared with the prints and the visitor was able to experience how the adolescent Escher was inspired by this important staircase through innovative research.