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A Sense of Wonder

From boredom to optical illusion: inside the adventurous mind of a teenager

The first exhibition ever to bring together M.C. Escher’s secondary school days with the prints that he was to 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 characterized his earlier work.

It is now clear 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 new exhibition: A SENSE OF WONDER, from boredom to optical illusion: inside the adventurous mind of a teenager.

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

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 Holland. 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.

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

The teenage Escher was unbelievably bored at school. We ought to be grateful to that institution, because it inadvertently encouraged him 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. He did this in such a cunning way, that we often do not notice it at first sight.

In a lecture given in 1963, he succinctly described his work as follows:

“If you want to focus the attention on something non-existent, then you have to try to fool yourself first and then your audience, by presenting your story in such a way that the element of impossibility is veiled, so that the superficial listener doesn’t even notice it. There has to be a certain enigma in it, which does not immediately catch the eye.” In an earlier letter to his friend Bruno Ernst, he had this to say: “Maybe I focus exclusively on the element of amazement, and therefore I also try to evoke exclusively a sense of wonder in my viewers.”

A Sense of Wonder is a permanent addition to our existing Escher exhibition.

The wood engraving Other World from January 1947 is the first work in which we see significant resemblances between print and staircase. Former curator Micky Piller tells us more about Other World and the connection with the staircase.

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