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Escher, close up: a fresh look at the famous artist and his work

On 3 February our new exhibition opened: Escher, close up. Escher was a keen photographer and for the first time his photo archive is on show. It gives us a new perspective on the artist and his work. How did this exhibition come about?

Fifteen months ago I joined Escher in The Palace in the capacity of curator. When starting out in a new job it’s customary to wonder what one can add as a person to the company or organization. In my case, I was wondering what I could add to the corpus of amazing books/exhibitions already produced on Escher. And secondly, how could I ensure that this artist and his oeuvre remain relevant in this world, in our current constantly changing society? At a monographic museum, you try to get the artist and his work function like a polished crystal, with the various facets reflecting what is going on in the world. The crystal stays the same, but the reflection is always new.

Maths teacher in the supermarket

I set to work on that task. I read as much literature on Escher as possible, and immersed myself in the archive. The photo archive in particular drew me in. I acquired an exceedingly personal picture of Escher. It was like bumping into my secondary school maths teacher in the supermarket. The man has a life too. Goes shopping. Just like you and I. In short, however brilliant he was, Escher turned out to be a human being.

That was really appealing to me. In an age in which we are keen to discover a politician’s true personality, or what sandwiches a film star eats (no bread, of course – that is a no-no these days), we also want to know the person behind the artist. Particularly in the case of Escher.

Jetta Escher-Umiker at the Gorges du Fier, 3 July 1924
Maurits Cornelis Escher and George Arnold Escher, 29 December 1926

Waxwork

Speaking primarily for myself, before I truly got to know the artist and his oeuvre, Eschers self-portraits had encouraged me to conjure in my mind an image of him akin to a waxwork. A prominent head, with fixed facial expression, little in the way of emotion. As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth. The letters written by Escher that I have read attest to a very authentic sense of humour. A playful man. A man who goes shopping. Just like you and I (A lot, even. Around half of the notes in his diaries are shopping lists).

Escher in knickerbockers

The photos in his archive respond to this new impression. I saw him as a man much in love with his fiancée Jetta; I saw him with his children; I saw him travelling with his artist friends; I saw him sleeping in the straw and hiking in knickerbockers armed with coarse, argyle socks. And very movingly, I saw photos he had taken of his children’s teddies, with their names neatly jotted down next to them. Lest he would forget.

M.C. Escher, Atrani, Amalfi coast, lithography, August 1931
Escher's wife Jetta with a view on Atrani, May 1931

Photos as part of preliminary study

This image, this new Escher, was one I wanted to share. But the photos present even more opportunities. The photos Escher took offer a glimpse inside his mind. His focus. What fascinated him. That same mind produced the staggering oeuvre that continues to amaze us. Research revealed that in his early work he made very frequent use of photos as part of his preliminary studies. He prepared detailed sketches for landscapes and portraits, but he often took a photo from the same perspective as well. As a reminder. A combination of both of these things, photos and graphic art, produces a surprising new picture too.

Gems

Another thing I discovered was that Escher was capable of taking really beautiful photos. After all, he didn’t exactly need anybody to explain to him how to come up with an exciting composition, how to play with perspective or contrast. And this was all the more evident when we had some negatives digitized.
The photographer who digitized the negatives for us was full of praise for them: ‘Absolute gems! Truly wonderful stuff! And so well preserved…’

Come and see these gems and this new Escher in the exhibition in Escher in The Palace: Escher, close up. Allow yourself to be amazed (again) by the artist and his work.

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