During the 1920s and 1930s, Maurits Cornelis Escher often went on long trips through Italy to soak up some inspiration for his work. The exhibition Escher, close up shows that Escher’s preliminary studies comprised not only sketches but also photos.
Together with artists he had befriended, Escher enjoyed visiting unspoiled regions in the spring and summer to produce some sketches, particularly in Italy. Once winter came he would develop a selection of these into prints. The exhibition Escher, close up shows that he would often take a photo of his subject too, from exactly the same perspective. These photos from Escher’s archive are now being exhibited for the first time alongside the prints that stemmed from these studies.
In the spring of 1930, for example, Escher travelled through the region of Calabria in Italy. During this journey he took countless photos which he stuck neatly in a photo album. At first glance these photos just look like memories of a nice holiday. Sure, there are plenty of photos of landscapes, but they’re holiday photos nonetheless. When you take a good look at the works he was producing in that period, however, you will recognize the landscapes from his prints.
Above are four pages from Escher’s photo album with pictures of his trip to Calabria. The photos date from 30 April 1930 to 24 May 1930. Of the 27 photos that Escher took of this trip, 15 of them show landscapes that are to be found in his prints. The other photos are of his travel companions or other things of interest from the region. With this ratio in mind, the photos cannot be considered mere jovial holiday snaps. A proportion of the photos served as a reference. These were subjects that Escher fleshed out in more detail in his work.
This is all the more evident when you compare the photos with the prints of the same subject. In the case of Pentedattilo, for instance, Escher took the photo on the left. The winter after which he produced the print on the right.
The similarities between photo and print are overwhelming. Precisely the same perspective, the same focus on the subject. What’s striking is that Escher omits the friend featured in the photo and frames the subject slightly differently. Escher conspicuously populates the left-hand and right-hand margins of his woodcut with plants, adding to the excitement of the composition. He also makes the Pentedattilo rocks pointier and renders the buildings in the rocks more dramatic. By choosing the woodcut as a medium, he turns it into a work rich in contrast, a spherical perspective being tricky in a woodcut.
This may well be the reason why he produced a lithograph of the following subject rather than a woodcut. Here you can see the photo Escher took of the Cattolica of Stilo and the print he produced of that same church.
Placing the photo next to the print, we see a great deal of similarities at first glance. On closer inspection, however, there are some clear differences. Where has Stilo gone? Escher has completely omitted the houses, swapping them for a romantic vista. Inspired by the mountains there, but adapted with a notable degree of artistic licence. Hence even in his landscapes a meticulous Escher bends reality.
A few days later Escher took a photo of Santa Severina, also in Calabria.
That winter he produced a lithograph of the same landscape:
Here we see the same tendency. In his lithograph, Escher stylized the landscape considerably. He made it more interesting, richer in contrast. Compared to the town in Escher’s print, the Santa Severina of the photo looks like a collapsed pudding. Escher’s Santa Severina depicts a town that is proud, bordering on pugnacious. It shines like a cut diamond in the sun. The diffuse plants in the photo have been replaced by bold rocks. Escher enhanced the town’s contours, made the steeple sharper. The real scene pales in comparison to the graphic representation.
This is just a handful of the photo-print combinations I made; there are many more. So what can we already infer from this small selection? First and foremost, Escher used photos as part of his preliminary studies. Why else would he take such painstaking photos of the subjects of which he produced prints? When we refer to his diary of the same period, it turns out that he noted down in it which photos were relevant. Consider these two pages dated 19 and 20 May 1930, for instance. He noted the exact photos he needed for the development of his subject, Santa Severina.
What else is noticeable? Escher moulded reality in his works. And he would choose the most suitable graphic medium according to the character of the landscape he wished to depict. The photos provide us not only with a wonderful image of a pristine Italy in 1930, but also with a peek into the mind of Escher-as-artist. Unparalleled insight into Escher’s way of working and his perception of reality.