The winter of 1935/1936 was a dark period in Escher’s life. In the spring of 1935, his second son Arthur had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. George, Escher’s eldest son, was in equally poor health. Without too much deliberation, a decision is made: Leave Rome. The clean mountain air will do the boys good. The couple sell their apartment in Via Alessandro Poeri and leave Rome on 4 July 1935. Mauk and Jetta decide to move the family to Château-d’Oex in Switzerland. Nina, Jetta’s sister, and her husband also live in Switzerland, in Steckborn. Although Steckborn is situated on the shores of Lake Constance (Bodensee) and Château-d’Oex lies east of Montreux, the Eschers are invited to stay with them until 1 September.
Mauk heads for The Hague first, to tie up important business matters. In late August, he returns to Steckborn and moves the family to Château-d’Oex. Jetta and the two boys soon feel at home. The boys enjoy playing around in the snow and Jetta loves to ski. However, in a letter to a close friend, Escher confesses that the “miserable snow” has done little to raise his spirits. He misses the warmth of Italy. According to Escher’s biographer Hazeu, the sound of Jetta plaiting her hair in the dark evoked memories of a boat sailing at night. This gives him a brilliant idea: after consulting Jetta, he decides to write to an Italian shipping company to explore the option of taking a tour of the Mediterranean. In lieu of payment, Escher offers to create prints for a “propaganda booklet”.
He suggests that his prints could serve as illustration material. This is not such an odd suggestion as it may seem. As the Escher Archives in Kunstmuseum Den Haag reveal, the Compagnia di Navigazione ADRIA was already publishing advertising booklets. (See photo for an overview of the booklets held in the M.C. Escher Collection).
Nevertheless, the couple are astonished to learn that their proposal is accepted. Escher was already familiar with the passenger-carrying cargo ships, having travelled on the Verdi during his 1935 spring tour of Sicily and Malta. ‘Verdi’ is the boat depicted in the print Senglea. To convince the shipping company of his good intentions, he encloses a copy of this print with his letter.
On 27 April 1936, Escher arrives in Fiume, modern-day Rijeka in Croatia. This is where the company is headquartered. Escher is handed the archive, and is invited to select the ports he wishes to visit. He is also handed a letter to avert any unforeseen problems with the port authorities. He is treated like a king. He is personally introduced to the captain of the ship, and is assured that wine will be served with every evening meal. Although the boats are officially cargo ships, around thirty passengers are permitted on board. They live in relative luxury, as can be seen in the photos in the advertising brochure. Little wonder, therefore, that Escher and Jetta are served wine during dinner.
During the journey, Escher makes several drawings for his prints. Freighter is one of the woodcuts to emerge. Escher’s 1936 photo album contains a photo of Escher in his plus fours, drawing on the deck of a boat.
A drawing board is perched on his lap. Might this be the drawing board that he bought especially for this tour? According to his pocket diary calculations, the board cost 62.80 Swiss Francs. He also kept a meticulous record of his travels.
What makes Freighter so special? Like Castrovalva, Freighter also features two lines moving in opposite directions. Initially, your eyes are drawn to the deck of the cargo ship with the rolled up ropes, the winches, the tied-up barrels, the dock levellers, and possibly also the two people on deck. You look into the depths of the deck of a ship that is on its way to the next port. The boats of this shipping company sailed mainly at night, to allow passengers to step ashore during the day to make a brief excursion. At the same time, your eyes are drawn into the distance by the horizon that Escher positions far above the bow of the ship, almost at the top of the print. This creates a sense of distance: the horizon is far away, far away.
The technical ingenuity and self-assured quality of Escher’s work becomes evident on closer examination. A visit to the museum is recommended for this purpose. It is important to remember that a woodcut is a form of relief printing. Everything that Escher carved out of the wood takes on the colour of the paper (in this case white), and everything that remains takes on the colour of the ink (in this case black). The small, rhythmic lines that occasionally run through two waves create a wave action pattern, conjuring up the perfect image of a warm spring day on the Mediterranean. The curling bow waves are left white; the horizon is an ultra-fine, black dotted line.
It is as though the viewer is standing with Escher alongside the Chief Officer. As you look over the ship towards the horizon, the centre of the picture seem to disappear altogether. Right in front of you, along the masts, the stays and halyards, the horizon is at eye level. Escher emphasises the horizon by leaving more ‘white space’ above the horizon than below. A blanket of light above the horizon makes everything in the distance appear even further away! It is fascinating to learn how Escher photographed this subject during his tour. Escher did not work from photographs; he always made drawings and combined different drawings for his prints. Nevertheless, there are striking similarities between the small photos and the work itself.
The tour, which took Escher four and a half weeks to complete (slightly less for Jetta), resulted in a total of nine prints. In his customary manner, he kept his financial records meticulously up to date.
At the bottom of the table, he noted:
“Value in exchange for 48 copies of prints, journeys offered, based on freight charges of the Adria, plus Lire 300 as a contribution towards expenses incurred.”