Time and again people ask me whether I find it a chore having to work with such dry work as the prints of M.C. Escher. After all, they say it’s so mathematical, and sometimes people even maintain that it has very little to do with art, being instead the product of mathematical formulas. This prejudice is the tragedy of Escher’s prints. If you don’t remember his art from the maths class in secondary school, then you will surely have seen it in the dentist’s waiting room or sometimes even adorning the ceiling above the dentist’s chair!
At the same time, we here in The Hague can’t help but notice that, fortunately enough, this does not prevent 100.000 visitors a year from coming to see his work. We frequently witness their surprise at the sheer quantity of subjects Escher treated in his extensive career, at his incredibly deft technique, at the verisimilitude characterizing the most impossible of images, and yet at his sense of humour too.
Escher’s jokes are delivered in a deadpan style, with tongue in cheek. Often you have to look twice before recognizing that you were, after all, viewing a visual joke. The pre-eminent example is surely Still Life with mirror from 1934, in which he presents a view of a street in Villalago in the Abruzzo region of Italy in a gently tilted mirror. Only after a while do you realize that the scene as depicted is an impossible one. The reflection in a tilted mirror should contain some aspect of the upper portion of the opposite wall, or need to be viewed through the window on the other side of the room. The perspective of this street has been arranged in such a way that you are unable to view it from underneath, which ought to be the case in the tilted mirror.
A decade later, he presents us with two hands drawing each other in such a clever way that this is not immediately evident (Drawing hands, lithograph, 1948). Later still, with similarly ironic affability, he shows us the possibility of being able to look at three worlds simultaneously in the spectacular lithograph Three worlds from 1955. Here you may well be expecting an impossibility, but in actual fact what we find in this lithograph is very precisely observed reality: a Japanese-style fish and the reflection of the bare trees lining the edge of the water. But what we also see – and this is something he has done with a great deal of cunning – is the surface of the water through the leaves floating on it. At a glance, then, we see what is going on under the water, on it and above it.
It goes without saying that for all these works it is possible to look metaphysical or philosophical, but such extra information is not really what Escher is all about. He used to be bewildered by people joyfully approaching him to expound their visions of his work. Even in his letters to his son he responds rather stolidly on this subject. It is all down to the way in which he viewed the world. Time and again I discover that a sense of wonder plays a key role in his creative efforts. And this is something he also mentions in correspondence with his friend Bruno Ernst (Hans de Rijk): ‘Perhaps I am indeed endeavouring to provoke nothing but a sense of wonder in those who view my works’.*
Throughout his life Escher was capable of preserving his sense of wonder. He demonstrates this to us again and again. Together with him we witness those ephemeral moments: that leaf shed from a tree and floating on the water, rendering visible the three worlds. Of course, it is also possible to use this lithograph to formulate an argument about parallel worlds in which we find ourselves these days. This is perfectly conceivable; Escher presents us with the possibility of selecting those interpretations that appeal to us. His work is obviously so broad in scope that even now, forty years after his death in a world radically transformed by modern technology, it still has a stimulating effect on people. With Escher, they draw inspiration from his different ways of composing images. I suspect, indeed I hope, that they have a sense of what motivated him: wonder. If what you see kindles a feeling of wonder in you, and you add a little twist, then you will come close to the philosophy of Escher.
In the lectures he continued to give well into his later years, Escher spoke alternately of the ‘non-existent’ and the ‘impossible’ and/or of ‘impossible objects’. For each lecture he produced lists of the topics he intended to discuss and the accompanying prints he would be showing on slides. From these we are able to infer that what he referred to as the ‘non-existent’ in one lecture was for the most part combined with the same prints that he would subsume under the rubric of the ‘impossible’ in another. Sometimes he employs both terms in a single sentence. Below is a quote from the lecture he held for the Mathematische Centrum on 29 October 1963. Escher is extremely clear about his motivation:
“If you want to focus the attention on something non-existent, then you have 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.”
For a moment you think ‘is it a strange kind of caterpillar, a reptile, what’s it actually supposed to be?’ The creature with the marvellous name, “De Pedalternorotandomovens centroeulatus articulosus”, came into existence, as Escher wrote in his lithograph, ‘due to dissatisfaction with the absence in nature of wheel-shaped, living creatures with the ability to roll themselves forward’. Escher begins in the extensive text and shows the motion of the curl-up in four stages in the middle of the print. As usual, he contemplated the details at length: how, where and at what rate the creature could move forward, when it would use its six feet and when it could roll itself into a wheel shape, enabling it to reach top speed on ‘a relatively flat path’. Furthermore, he explains that the “De Pedalternorotandomovens centroeulatus articulosus“ is referred to ‘in common parlance as wentelteefje or rolpens’. In Dutch, this produces an ironic play on words. ‘Wentelen’ means to rotate or revolve, and a ‘teef’ is a bitch. In addition to this, the name wentelteefje also refers to a Dutch recipe for toast (see the recipe at the bottom of the text). The male version of a wentelteefje is called rolpens: rolling and revolving are similar motions, and here too there is an association with food, with the rol element being derived from ‘rolmops’ (pickled herring) and ‘pens’ being the Dutch name for tripe, ‘rolpens’ being pickled herring rolled in tripe.
Anyone seeing Curl-up, as Wentelteefje is commonly called in English, is surprised at all the bizarre details. Escher always said that he was good at copying, a claim that was met with a good deal of mirth; after all, how does this explain all his fantastical creations? Nonetheless, Curl-up is one example where his claim rings true: there were once four clay ‘ wentelteefjes’, exactly as they are depicted in the print.
Curl-up is afforded an unexpected role within the group of prints in which Escher plays with the perspectives tied together, which he terms gravitational forces. In his 1959 description of his work featured in the book M.C. Escher Grafiek en Tekeningen,** he groups the following prints: Other world, Up and down, Curl-up, House of stairs and Relativity, spanning the years 1947 to 1953. The curl-up becomes the salient figure in House of Stairs, which he produced a few months later. In this lithograph the creatures ascend and descend the stairs like in a labyrinth. These are anonymous stairways, undoubtedly leading somewhere, though exactly where this might be is not obvious in the print. If I were capable of imagining myself on a staircase on the moon, then it might well look like this with such creatures scuttling around.
For Another world and Up and down, both from 1947, there is a direct link to Escher’s old school in Arnhem. Escher made Relativity, where the correspondence between the school building and the print is very clear, two years after House of stairs in 1953. In Relativity, the dream scenario from House of Stairs is made much broader in character.
Set alongside one another, we immediately see the paradox Escher wishes to show in this group: the interconnection of gravitational forces – perspectives. His aim, then, is to ‘fool’ the viewer inconspicuously. And he manages to do so with greater ease in Relativity on account of the image’s higher degree of verisimilitude. Every stairway that you follow with your eyes is correct, and only strikes you as incongruous once you look at the join between two sets of stairs or you suddenly spot a figure walking on the ‘underside’ of the stairs. A possibility not yet developed in House of stairs.
House of Stairs constitutes an intermediate step within this group. I can imagine how, during long hours of unbelievable boredom at school, the young Escher might have envisioned the central staircase twisting and turning and how these memories might have resurfaced when the school asked him to make a memorial plaque in 1946.
In his book ‘Grafiek en tekeningen’ Escher refers to the ‘playful element’ in House of Stairs:
‘Nearly all of the upper half of the print is the mirror image of the lower half. The lowest staircase, which a curl-up is descending from left to right, is even reflected twice: in the middle and then once more at the bottom. The contrast between ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ is dispensed with on the staircase in the top right-hand corner: two rows of creatures run in parallel, though one is ascending and the other descending.’**
Sources of quotes:
* Magic Mirror, Bruno Ernst, 2007 reissue by Taschen GMBH, pp. 37, 38
** The 2013 reissue by Taschen GMBH of M.C. Escher. The Graphic Work. Originally published by Royal publishing house J.J. Tijl NV, Zwolle 1959, page 13-15.
Recipe for wentelteefjes
Old Dutch recipe to enable stale bread to be used for a tasty lunch dish. Serves 2 people.
8 slices of stale white bread, crusts removed
1 tsp cinnamon powder
250 ml milk
40 g butter
Beat the egg in a deep dish or bowl.
Add the cinnamon powder and milk to the beaten egg.
One by one, dip the slices of bread in the mixture.
Next, place the slices of bread in two stacks on another plate.
Pour the remainder of the mixture over the two stacks of bread.
Allow to soak for around 4 minutes until the slices of bread are properly saturated.
Put the butter in the frying pan and fry the slices in batches of 4 for 5 minutes.
Don’t forget to turn the slices.
Allow the slices of bread to fry until they are golden brown in colour.
Serve the slices sprinkled with sugar and perhaps a little more cinnamon powder.