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Flor de Pascua

While still a student at the Haarlem School of Architecture And Decorative Arts, Escher received a commission from his friend Aad van Stolk. Van Stolk was fifteen years older than Escher. They met in 1919 when Van Stolk married Escher’s friend Fiet van der Does de Willebois, the sister of his friend Jan.

Fiet and Aad resided in Huis ter Heide and Escher stayed with the couple on a number of occasions. It is believed that this close friendship prompted Escher to create woodcuts of the lightly ironic texts of Aad. Escher eventually produced 19 woodcuts, including the 4 small woodcuts inserted in the text. The chapter featuring these four small works is devoted to Perfection, Imperfection, Foul Play and Lack of Character. In the prints, he drew parallels between animals and humans, humans and plants. The 4 small woodcuts were printed on the page in which Van Stolk describes the associations he attached to certain flowers.

All of the other woodcuts cover the entire page and are between 9 and 12 centimetres in size; the booklet itself measured a mere 15.7 by 12.3 centimetres. It is a beautifully crafted and was published by Hollandia-Drukkerij in Baarn in November 1921.

Fiet designed the cover: on the front is a small child standing under a large flowering tree that spans the entire width of the cover. The child is reminiscent of the Chinese traditional motifs commonly found on 17th century porcelain. However, the small child is probably their eldest son Jantje van Stolk.

Fiet and her baby son are also depicted in the print in the chapter devoted to Love, in which a women breastfeeds her child.

Van Stolk wrote a number of more or less philosophical texts for Flor de Pascua. In it, he explored the meaning of concepts such as Scapegoat, Beauty, and Theosophy.

M.C. Escher, 'Theosophy' from Flor de Pascua, woodcut, 1921

M.C. Escher, 'Scapegoat' from Flor de Pascua, woodcut, 1921
M.C. Escher, 'Beauty' from Flor de Pascua, woodcut, 1921

Escher’s friendship with the Van Stolks was hugely important for a number of reasons. As well as offering Escher his very first commission, Aad encouraged his friend to explore themes that were to recur throughout his working life. For instance, for Scapegoat Escher created two goats; the white goat is merged with a likeness of Christ and the black goat is merged with a likeness of Satan. In this way, he created a crosswise symmetry. For Beauty, he used a crystal pattern. After reading the academic papers about crystallography donated by his half-brother Berend in 1937, Escher began to explore the schematic structure of crystals. These subsequently formed the basis for the hundreds of studies he made for his tessellations.

Two key concepts explored in his early prints, nature and perspective, feature in Van Stolk’s small treatise on man’s power of unity with the higher self and Conscience, as it entices and guides us, or rather it acts as a beacon: “Grow accustomed to the weak light, for it shines with you eternally while the sun will habitually abandon you.” In Van Stolk text and Escher’s depictions, the walker takes the narrow path accompanied only by a lantern.

Possibly the most extraordinary print is the spherical mirror.

M.C. Escher, 'The Sphere (Self-portrait)' from Flor de Pascua, woodcut, 1921
M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror), lithograph, January 1935

In its rudimentary form, this is the first in a series of world-famous prints in which a spherical silver ball occupies centre stage. Indeed, it is the first in a series of such self-portraits. The version made in 1935, on the right, is the most famous.

It is remarkable how Escher explored many of the key themes of his later work while still a student, embarking on his first collaboration with a friend. In the years that followed, he worked out each topic with varying degrees of intensity, sometimes favouring one over the other. For example, it is generally believed that Escher abandoned his creative explorations of nature after leaving Italy. However, even after the war he continued to make various beautiful woodcuts and lithographs that would never have seen the light of day, had he not observed nature so intensively. The same applies to his never-waning interest in perspective. Without this relentless fascination, he would never have been able to create an effective optical illusion, let alone his tessellations.

Aad and Fiet van Stolk were to play a pivotal role in Escher’s life a year later, in 1922. That year, he travelled with his school friends Bas Kist and Jan van der Does de Willebois (Fiet’s younger brother) to Italy. Jan and Bas leave Italy after fourteen days. For the next ten days Escher is accompanied by Lex, the younger sister of Jan and Fiet. They visit a number of places, including San Gimignano. The following summer, Escher wants to do only one thing: to return to southern Europe. Aad and Fiet are eager to move temporarily to Spain with their two small children. They invite Escher to join them and travel by cargo ship through the Bay of Biscay and the Straits of Gibraltar to Alicante. They offer to pay half of his fare, if Escher agrees to look after their children. And so Escher arrives by train in Barcelona in late September via the port city of Tarragona. From there, he travels on to Madrid and Toledo, Granada and Córdoba.

In 1926, the year that the newly wedded Escher and Jetta move to Rome, a telegram arrives from Fiet, informing them that Aad has passed away. The Van Stolks are living in Viterbo, Italy. Without hesitation, Escher packs his bags and heads over to see Fiet. He finds her in a terrible state. He accompanies her and her two children to a hotel and arranges Aad’s funeral.

Next to the influence of the Van Stolks on his life, the booklet Flor de Pascua is a key work in the oeuvre of Maurits Cornelis Escher, for it is in this work that he explored all of his main themes for the very first time. In varying combinations, concepts such as nature, perspective, tessellations and reflections were to preoccupy him and his work for the rest of his life.

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