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Emblemata

‘And so, with the supremely ironical connection to the tradition of our “forefathers”, an entirely new phenomenon came into being.’

In  a previous story I wrote about how Escher drew inspiration from the late mediaeval artist Hieronymus Bosch; this time the inspiration stems from the Golden Age. More specifically: emblemata. These ‘images with adages’ are what led indirectly to his recognition as an artist.

Emblemata were all the rage in the seventeenth century, there were even emblem books published. An emblema is essentially a pictorial image accompanied by a motto and a poem. The reader had to combine these three things in order to fathom the significance of the emblema.

What are emblemata about?

The first emblem book dates from 1531, though the genre did not take off in the Netherlands until the seventeenth century. Famous Dutch writers such as P.C. Hooft and Jacob Cats wrote emblem books successfully. Emblemata could encapsulate life lessons, often with a stern moral imperative.

M.C. Escher, Lute (XXIV Emblemata), woodcut. Between March and June 1931
Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen, pag. 21, 1614

Out of fashion

After the eightteenth century emblemate became out of fashion. Nevertheless, Escher decided to make a series of emblemata in 1930. Why would he do that? This idea wasn’t born from nothing. In Rome, where Escher lived and worked at that time, art historian G.J. Hoogewerff was director of the Dutch Historical Institute.

Back then, Hoogewerff was already a connoisseur of the old masters of Holland and Flanders, and he would go on to become a big name in art history later on in life. At the end of 1930, Hoogewerff sang praises of Escher’s work and perceived in his oeuvre a great many qualities that he saw in the old masters. When Escher was depressed and short on inspiration, Hoogewerff suggested to him that he might produce some emblemata. A partnership was born. Hoogewerff wrote the text under the pseudonym A.E. Drijfhout and Escher saw to the woodcuts.

M.C. Escher, Balance, woodcut, Between March and June 1931
Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen, pag. 161, 1614

Nod

As had been the case in the seventeenth century, then, the emblemata were the product of a collaborative effort between an artist and a writer. Nonetheless, that was not the only similarity. There are stylistic ones too. Here and there Escher included a nod to the traditional emblemata. He depicted a lute, for instance, and used the palm tree commonly portrayed by manifold seventeenth-century predecessors for the purposes of his series. He refrained however from adopting the symbolic significance of the objects from previous centuries. It may have been that he espoused a principle of shunning exaggeration. The emblemata did still need to be comprehensible to a contemporary public.

Elsevier

Despite all efforts, getting the emblemata published proved tricky. Perhaps the emblemata were a little too old-fashioned after all, with the Latin text rendering them elitist too. At any rate the editor-in-chief of Elsevier, for which Hoogewerff wrote regularly, did not think the emblemata constituted suitable material for his readers. Still, he was interested in an article on Escher’s overall oeuvre. Interest that begat the article M.C. Escher, graphic artist, by G.J. Hoogewerff, published in 1931.

Not infrequently astute

Hoogewerff’s article is worth reading if only for the beautifully old-fashioned language in which he lauded Escher. For example, at the beginning he says:

‘Properly contemplating a woodcut or a lithograph by Escher, one will not readily proclaim “gracious, how original” and, after an obliging nod, proceed to some other activity.’

And later on:

‘It is all positivity, it is all authenticity and truth; without being intrusive in its presentation, without the “modern” pursuit of whimsy; quite often it is subtle and not infrequently astute; but it is calm through and through.’

These encomiastic effusions for Escher’s work span eighteen pages. An article in the style of a news magazine feature on the television.

Woodcuts in keeping with the old style

At the end, Hoogewerff boldly makes the most of his privileged authorial position, slipping in a reference to the emblemata. Though obviously he describes it differently:

‘woodcuts with title page which illustrate modern proverbial verse concisely and meaningfully in keeping with the old style of the “emblemata”.’

He stays tight-lipped about his own contribution:

‘verse by A.E. Drijfhout, who met Escher in Spain by coincidence and who is no stranger to the readership of “Elseviers Maandschrift”, though his work is seldom read’.

Supremely ironical

‘And so, with the supremely ironical connection to the tradition of our “forefathers”, an entirely new phenomenon came into being’,

Hoogewerff writes of the emblemata. And here he hits the nail on the head. Not only in terms of the emblemata, but also with regard to Escher’s entire oeuvre. That is exactly what Escher does. He uses the techniques of the old masters, but he makes those techniques his own.

The comment also refers ‘supremely ironically’ to Hoogewerff’s own contribution as a connoisseur of old masters. Ultimately, the emblemata went on to become a more or less forgotten aspect of Escher’s oeuvre, but this partnership with Hoogewerff had an abiding influence.

The panegyrical article penned by the art connoisseur for Elsevier was a significant step towards Escher’s recognition as a graphic artist.

 

NB:
In 1932 Escher and Hoogewerff (as A.E. Drijfhout) found a way to publish the emblemata at Van Dishoeck. Look at this publication here and find out how beautiful Eschers emblemata are: 24 emblemata

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