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Escher’s cabinet of curiosities, part 2

In my previous story, I wrote about Escher’s cabinet of curiosities. A picture of this cabinet still exists, dating from 1915. What can this picture tell us about Escher? First and foremost: Escher was not a boy with a shabby room and a couple of dull posters of beautiful girls above his bed. This was a serious young man with serious interests who was given space to extend these and show them off. Unsurprisingly, he came from a privileged environment and naturally received a broad education.

His father, George Arnold Escher, was an hydraulic engineer with a scientific mind who had spent many years working in Japan. He endeavoured to instil his curiosity about the world in his children. Escher came to be interested not only in the visual arts but also in music, astronomy, photography and even carpentry. He was given access to a carpentry studio, a darkroom and hence this room too, which he turned into his cabinet of curiosities.

No youthful whim

The predilections in evidence in the interior that Escher assembled with such care and photographed with such pride were no youthful whim. Many of the objects he amassed at a young age were given a permanent place in his studios, both when he moved to Italy and when he subsequently returned to the Netherlands many years later. Never again would he take such a detailed photo of his workplace, though many of these objects recur in other photos.

Clear preference

One thing that strikes me is that Escher already had such an extremely clear preference for a certain group of artists. Particularly the Late Mediaeval and Early Modern masters, the artists who still genuinely practised art as a trade. Throughout his life Escher’s taste did not change. When he visited the Museo del Prado later in life he noted that he was primarily excited by the Early Netherlandish paintings.

He was not very much drawn to the committed avant-gardists of his own time, the cubists and the dadaists and this is evident in his interior. Hence his room was no miniature echo of the Paris salon in which the topicality and the quality of modern art was on show, instead standing as a (perhaps unconscious) reference to the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ of past masters. Albeit complemented by Japanese art and situated in the 20th century.

Gift to art history

However insignificant a photo of an interior might appear, this room is the material echo of what fascinated Escher. In the case of a straightforward man like Escher, this youthful diligence provides a glimpse into his youthful visual brain. A glimpse into his personal artistic canon. An art historical gift.

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