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A Year of Wonder

It won’t have escaped your attention: 2014 was devoted to A SENSE OF WONDER, both in Escher in The Palace and therefore also in this concluding story. The vast majority of our visitors believe that a sense of wonder is important when viewing the work of M.C. Escher. The technical skill that is required to capture the seemingly impossible is truly staggering to all those who come into contact with Escher’s work. But his work is about more, much more than that. First and foremost, he worked with traditional objects found in the visual arts. He is fascinated by the conflict between the two- and the three-dimensional planes. “How do I depict depth?; how do I depict space?” are questions that preoccupied his mind and which he sought to answer again and again. Many of his later prints represent eternity and infinity.

In Italy, the boy from the flat as a pancake Holland discovered an entirely different perspective. He sensed and saw how space changes when you look up from the valley to an object, or look down from a hilltop on the events unfolding in the far distance.

M.C. Escher, San Gimignano, woodcut, January or February 1923
M.C. Escher, Inside St Peter's, woodcut, March 1935

Thirty years after creating his print Inside St Peter’s (1935), he recounted how he was regularly asked in St Peter’s Basilica during the making of his preparatory prints:

“Gosh doesn’t this make your head spin? My standard reply was yes, that is the exact point. That is the essence of this print.”

He attached great importance to sharing his work with us. His friend, the journalist Hein van ’s-Gravensande, described it as follows in 1940:

“graphical works of what has been perceived, i.e. reality, have been created, but that reality has been assigned a synthesis, an orderly arrangement. So when people see a little town depicted on one of his prints, it may well be that they don’t recognise the scene as such when standing on a hilltop. And yet they can sense the atmosphere and recognise it as quintessentially Italian.”

Escher ordered reality to such an extent that it was instantly recognisable on site. After all, his aim was to create a synthesis, the essence as it were, of a particular place in time. To achieve that aim, he embarked on long walking tours each spring to places that interested him. During these walks, he created drawings, which he subsequently bundled together. The most important elements of these drawings were incorporated in a print, which admittedly did not resemble reality. For example, he omitted quite a few houses from the eponymously titled old town of Castrovalva. (Of course, back then there was no internet and it wasn’t as easy to get to the essence of reality).

M.C. Escher, Castrovalva, lithograph, February 1930
Viewpoint in 2006

First and foremost, Escher wanted to evoke the atmosphere of a place by combining the most important features of a landscape with his experiences on-site and his recollections of that place at that particular moment in time. He was a romantic through and through, especially during his first years in Italy.

When viewed in that context, the discovery of the staircase of his secondary school represents a major turning point. Following his contacts in 1946 with the Reunion Society of his old school, two prints emerged: Gallery (in December 1946) and Another world (in January 1947). The transition is instantly apparent.

M.C. Escher, Gallery, mezzotint, December 1946
M.C. Escher, Other world, wood engraving and woodcut in black, reddish brown and green, printed from three blocks, January 1947

From the dominant central perspective of the corridor in Gallery, surrounded by different perspectives, it is as though Escher seemingly arrives completely unexpectedly to the cabin with arched windows of Another world, where you view the other perspectives almost simultaneously. The inner world and the outer world are inextricably linked.

In a letter to his friend Bruno Ernst, Escher wrote the following:

“I focus maybe exclusively on the element of wonder, and therefore I also try to evoke only a sense of wonder in my viewers.”

My duty as a curator is to dissect this element of wonder. The print Up and down, which Escher created six months later, reveals how he tempted us from the core of the work to experience impossible observations as though they were the most normal thing in the world.

Although the visual citations from the school are far less direct than in Another world, this lithograph would look completely different without Escher’s memories and recollections of the staircase and the transition that he had made six months prior to that. Until now, including by me, Up and down had been regarded as a typically impossible depiction of a motif from his Italian period. Admittedly it has been perceived as an illustration of a theory: Escher was preoccupied with combining the nadir (the singularity at the bottom of the object) and the zenith (the singularity at the top of the object). In doing so, he had noticed that the lines, in contrast to classical methods, were not straight lines at all, but curved towards the singularity. This is in contrast to our traditional way of depicting a scene, where we use the central perspective with the lines running as straight as possible – like railway sleepers – to the central singularity.

Outside the double staircase stands a palm tree; when viewed with the arches and the staircase you could almost imagine yourself in Rome in terms of atmosphere. The little boy seated and the mother looking at him is a universal theme. However, in this case we, the viewers, find ourselves in a slightly peculiar situation as we are looking up at the little boy, as though we were his friend or girlfriend, as well as looking down on him, like a concerned neighbour might do. We are ourselves as well as someone else! Parallel universes are created in our heads.

Sitting on the top rung of that school staircase a few years ago, I made a short video on my mobile phone. A film to capture my memories, to preserve my sense of wonder and amazement at what I saw there, and to share all this with others. On one of the videos something truly amazing happened; in fact, I only spotted it on my computer afterwards. At the opposite end, behind the balustrade, was a person. He turned a corner and disappeared, only to re-emerge in the next frame of the staircase. He disappeared again, this time longer, but re-emerged briefly until he disappeared forever (answering the call of nature, it subsequently transpired).

In the not too distant past, we never considered using a mobile telephone to take photographs or to make videos. Back then you sat, stood, and watched. If you wandered around your school, bored senseless, as Mauk Escher did between 1912 and 1918, you observe things, you store them in your memory for future use. Even if that happens to be thirty years later.

Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', Photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014
Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', Photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014

In that weird staircase of his school, Escher witnessed a number of perspectives. When you walk up the stairs, you need very little imagination to see people walking above you and below you, to your right or left. When you stand high up there on the staircase, you can see your fellow pupils walking down below as well as straight ahead of you and to your diagonal left and right. They’re walking towards you and they’re walking away from you. They are on their way to a classroom, heading outside, heading elsewhere, simultaneously moving with and criss-crossing each other.

It was exciting to spend the last few years and especially this year intensively examining the staircase of Escher’s secondary school and deciphering the traces in his later work. This last Escher of the Month of 2014 is a synopsis of the knowledge that I have acquired on my journey of discovery. I hope you have enjoyed this journey as much as I have.

PS: A debate ensued in the wake of the publicity surrounding the exhibition “A SENSE OF WONDER, or how boredom becomes an optical illusion” in Arnhem and environs. Apparently people knew for many years that the school staircase was the source of inspiration for Escher’s 1953 print, Relativity. This is undoubtedly true, because the similarities are the first thing you notice when you enter the school building. But this perception has never been officially documented. Furthermore, nobody knew just how influential the staircase was. So this has, at long last, been put on record.

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