Often, it is the highlights within an artist’s oeuvre that attract most attention. Which is logical, as they are representative of the artist at his very best, having found his style and surpassing his early work. But does this imply that his early work is unexciting? Quite the contrary. Escher’s early works exude something of the artist he will go on to become in due course.
The finger exercises, the initial experiments, sometimes clumsy, but imbued with a sense of hope. It is often the case that the artist does not yet have the technique or the depth he or she will have developed later on in life, but there is promise already. As a connoisseur of an artist’s later work, it is tempting to view early works like some kind of fetuses, musing on whether or not it is possible to discern in them a spark of genius.
Cephalopods or ingenious?
In my head I am always secretly comparing early work with my own initial artistic endeavors at around the same age. If you share this tendency, then my advice would be: do not. I usually find that when I myself was still drawing cephalopods, the artist was not quite painting the Sistine Chapel yet, but was nonetheless getting pretty close.
It goes without saying that this tendency towards self-torment is not the only reason to look at an artist’s early work. Early works tell us a great deal about the interests of a young artist, the quest he or she is setting out on to achieve the ultimate masterpiece and, of course, the talent already inherent in the artist at a tender age.
Escher’s early works are always given too little attention in consideration of his oeuvre. The works that draw most attention are those that he produced after he hit 30. Nevertheless, Escher produced some extremely interesting early work. Moreover, these works constitute an ideal indicator of what was preoccupying him in those days. They convey a sense of a glorious development towards his masterpieces. They anticipate the artist he will go on to become. Down below I will offer a couple of examples.
Did you make linoleum cuts at school too? I always messed up with my gouge at the last second. Cutting my fingers. Or suddenly lopped off that crucial portion of the edge, ruining the entire composition’s coherence. Oh woe! Unsurprisingly, Escher was a dab hand at cutting linoleum. His first extant work is a linoleum cut, produced in 1916. At this juncture he was eighteen years old. It’s a portrait of his father. This is no coincidence – Escher was very close to his father, and closely resembled him too. Escher produced a relatively small number of portraits in his life, but actually his father was the main subject of a couple of prints.
A year after his first linoleum cut Escher produced his first etching: Railway Bridge over the Rhine at Oosterbeek. Why this bridge in particular? At that point he had just moved to Oosterbeek. It is not the finest piece of etching, to be honest, but pretty deft considering that etching is not the easiest of techniques. Nevertheless, he didn’t persist with it for very long. And that is understandable if you are familiar with his later work. The technique involved in etching means that creating lines is a totally different experience to what it is in the case of linoleum cuts or woodcuts. And it is precisely these tight lines that will go on to form an important part of Escher’s signature. Hence that is something he is instinctively striving towards already at a young age.
Like most artists, Escher started small. At first he produced linoleum cuts, subsequently moving on to woodcuts. Small portraits and bookplates. He clearly has a long way to go in terms of his development. Small is not only safe, but also affordable. In that period (when he was 20) he did not have much money to spend on his work and so he mainly used small blocks. And what does he make for one of his first woodcuts? Rather strikingly, a bookplate for his friend Roosje, with whom he is in love. An unrequited love, incidentally, despite the beautiful rose.
Escher’s early development is readily discernible in the works Sunflowers and Life Force. He produced Sunflowers at the age of 20. 13 works and a year later he produced Life Force. We can perceive tremendous growth in this short space of time. Whereas Escher was still struggling with the lines in Sunflowers in 1918, they have been elevated to the status of a blessing by 1919.
Whereas in 1918 Escher can already see the graphical qualities of the sunflowers and uses the forms of the flower to achieve an appealing aggregate, this is something he has perfected by 1919. And where he once had simply depicted a flower, he goes on to take the design to a whole new level by imbuing it with an intellectual notion, now referring to what is pretty much the same sunflower as: Life Force. In contrast to the flower portrayed. After all, the sunflower is on its last legs. The disc flower is drooping, the stalk is bent melancholically. Life Force. The significant irony that Escher will touch on in his later work is already present here.
Not long thereafter he produced a penetrating self-portrait. He had used himself as a model previously, producing a small self-portrait in 1918 too, but this one is of an entirely different order of magnitude. Whereas the 1918 portrait has only surfaces for eyes, little in the way of individual features, and is not engaging with the viewer, the 1919 portrait stares straight at the viewer. Challenging, self-assured, a severe gaze. As though he had found confidence in his own ability and was using this to reinvent himself.
Self-confident hipster beard
Only four years later he produced another of these self-assured portraits. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful, most intriguing self-portraits ever made, a woodcut from 1923. Here we see a bearded Escher. His control of the lines is absolute perfection. The curvature of his forehead, the recesses of his eye sockets, he used his gouge to thicken and thin, lending his features the semblance of three-dimensionality. From the wave in his hair on his head to the tangled mess of his bold hipster beard. The beard was, as it is nowadays, a statement. It was his way of announcing: I am a man now. I am engaged, happily in love and a master of my technique. The young artist had come of age.