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In Mesquita’s Classroom

M.C. Escher did not have happy memories of his high school days in Arnhem. With the exception of a few teachers, such as his arts teacher, he disliked school intensely. Escher did however have a group of friends at school, who helped him through this difficult time. They were Jan van der Does de Willebois and older sister Fiet, Bas Kist, Roosje Ingen Housz and Conny Umbgrove. Despite persevering for many years, Escher failed his high school exams in 1918, gaining bad grades in constitutional affairs, domestic economics, accounting and history. His parents tried to find a creative solution. Via their contacts in Delft, their son was able to enroll that same year into the architectural engineering course. Unfortunately, Escher did not take to Delft either. He was diagnosed with a nasty skin infection and failed his first year. During his brief spell in Delft, he did however create decors for the theatre group Groene Toneel as well as a woodcut for Delftsche Studenten Almanak.

Via Richard Roland Holst, professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, Escher eventually ended up at the Haarlem School of Architecture And Decorative Arts. The school was located in Paviljoen Welgelegen, the former residence of the English banking family Hope & Co. On the recommendations of his father, Escher embarked on a degree course in architectural engineering. No sooner had he been accepted onto the course, or he presented his work to Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, the famous graphic artist who lectured in printmaking in Haarlem. Recognising Escher’s talent, Mesquita unhesitatingly put in a good word to the headmaster Verkruysen, as well as Escher’s parents. His parents finally relinquished: if our youngest son has talent, we will support him. And support him they did, through thick and thin, for many years.

And so Escher moved to Haarlem on 17 September 1919. His landlady gifted him a white cat, which inspired him to create two woodcuts. The woodcuts demonstrate Escher’s remarkable technical abilities: he captured the tiny hairs in the ears of the cat and its posture extraordinarily well.

During his printmaking studies in Haarlem, Escher experimented with many different styles to see which suited him best. He starts with beautiful Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) patterns such as in Portrait of a Man, which might even be a portrait of his mentor, Jessurun de Mesquita.

Later on, he tried his hand at expressionism, appeared to flirt with cartoon-style designs and even made several attempts at extreme abstraction. For Escher in 1920, all of these avenues were open to a young artist. For students intending to embark on a career in art, it is only natural to experiment with various techniques and mediums.

Blocks of basalt along the sea, woodcut, 1919
The Borger Oak, Oosterbeek, linoleum cut, 1919

At the end of his studies at the academy, Escher created the woodcut In Mesquita’s Classroom. The ingenuity of the print lies in the fact that Escher does not deploy a central perspective as such, but simply arranges geometric shapes in such a way, that the space is perceived as logical.

Despite all the different applications of lines, the print is easy on the eye. This is because of the four planes that Escher left black. The large plane of her skirt is especially noteworthy because of its asymmetric shape. The skirt connects the foreground to the background. Although Escher positioned the two figures at right angles to each other, they are executed in a flat, frontal perspective. All voluminous details have been omitted: no rounded hips or arm, cheeks, or thigh. The man and woman resemble cut-out figures. Nevertheless, the viewer’s first impression of the print is of two people who are deeply focused on their work. This is an extremely young Escher only at the start of his soon to be successful career.

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