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Rowing towards the Castle in the Air

People tend to assume that M.C.Escher’s early prints feature scenes inspired by specific places in Italy. But this is not always the case. From 1925 to 1928 we see Escher discovering his métier, and experimenting with and considering all kinds of possibilities. He tackles different subjects and explores different ways of portraying them. And as well as mastering and refining his technical skills, in retrospect it is clear that he also examines the possibility of combining a specific technique with a particular subject.

As he explores the representational limitations of woodcut, he is essentially asking himself: “What can I depict on and with a block of wood of this kind?” At the same time, he is gaining experience of working with different gouges and chisels to find out which are best suited for a particular purpose and whether it is better to work along the grain or across the grain for the different facets of a print. He studied under Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, who taught Escher and his classmates to work along the grain, which means that the block of wood is cut parallel to the trunk of the tree. End-grain engraving is done on a block that is a cross section of the trunk, which means that the block is cut perpendicular to the grain. In other words, blocks used for end-grain engraving are always much smaller than long-grain blocks. Cutting across the grain is also more difficult because the structure of the wood is harder. Yet there are advantages to working with harder end-grain wood. For instance, it allowed Escher to create far more detailed prints. Later he would also use a combination of the two: long-grain wood for larger areas or if he was working with colour, and end-grain wood for fine details. Castle in the Air is a large print that measures 62.4 cm by 38.8 cm. So it must have been engraved on a long-grain block.

The Escher archive in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague includes a little storybook that was published in 1898 – the year Escher was born. The lettering on the cover says ‘Om aan de kleintjes voor te lezen, verzameld en bewerkt by A.C. Kuiper’ [Stories to be read aloud to children, compiled and edited by A.C. Kuiper]. It is an illustrated book of fairy tales and stories.

Escher’s oldest son George wrote a note to the person responsible for transferring the Escher archive to the Kunstmuseum. In the note he explains that his father would often read his three sons stories from the book. George describes vivid memories of ‘feverish nights, lying in bed as a child, while my father read to me by the light of a half-veiled lamp in an attempt to lull me to sleep’.

The note was taped inside the front of the book. Given the date on which the book was published, it is not unreasonable to assume that, as well as spending many hours reading stories from the book to his children, Escher himself probably sat and listened to the same stories as a child. George mentions in particular the story of The Lost Princess and says the castle in the story provided ‘the inspiration’ for the print Castle in the Air. George was 18 months old when Escher created this print in 1928. Escher’s wife would give birth to their second son, Arthur, in December of that year. Their third son, Jan, was born in 1938.

The story describes how, with the help of a clever little dog, the Prince finds his twin sister the Princess imprisoned in a room in a castle tethered to a rock in the middle of a large sea. All kinds of things threaten to go wrong, but at the very last moment the Prince and the little dog are rescued from their predicament by a sea turtle, while the castle disappears into a large white cloud and drifts further and further away.

In the Escher archive there are photographs of a holiday the Escher family went on in 1913, when Escher was 15 years old. The family travelled by train and car to the west coast of France, where they went to see Mont Saint-Michel, the island in Normandy with the large gothic abbey. In those days the island was still separate from the mainland, so visitors had to row across to the island. Someone took a photograph during the crossing, which ended up in a family photo album. Maybe it was Escher himself.

When I came across this photograph, I was immediately struck by the similarity between the abbey and the castle in Castle in the Air. Escher incorporated early impressions in many of his works. As a boy he would undoubtedly have been impressed by the way the rocky island loomed larger and larger as the boat gradually approached.

Nonetheless, I think that the print was more directly inspired by the description in the storybook, as George Escher explains. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Escher will probably have made an association between the 30 minutes the family spent rowing across to the island in 1913 and the story of The Lost Princess. When he came to work on Castle in the Air in January 1928, the two scenarios came together in the print.

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