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‘Possessing our work against our will’

This is not the regular story about Escher. This time I’d like to react on a recent article from the Volkskrant, published on Friday 23 February 2018. ‘Stedelijk Museum ‘s Hertogenbosch believes it is time for a Nazi design exhibition’ was the headline. In this article, the author situates the artist Maurits Cornelis Escher in the context of Nazi texts and comments on Nazi design. This gives rise to the impression of Escher having been a collaborationist, and that is unwarranted. Escher was not a Nazi sympathizer.

Following an introduction on the urgent need for an exhibition on Nazi art in the Netherlands, the article describes the status quo. ‘In recent years there has been a cautious breakthrough in terms of Nazi art and Nazi communication.’ The author sums this up by citing the reissue of Mein Kampf, The Evidence Room (installation involving reconstructions and casts of a fragment of a crematorium and of the door of a gas chamber), ‘and in 2015 Museum Arnhem exhibited for the first time a collection of “collaborationist art” purchased by the Netherlands during the Second World War, including paintings by such artists as Karel Appel, Maurits Escher and Pyke Koch.’ The article goes on to quote Director of the Stedelijk Museum ‘s Hertogenbosch, Timo de Rijk: ‘The topic of Nazi design is charged and potentially explosive, and that’s exactly why this exhibition is imperative.’ And so on.

Here we see some particularly unfortunate framing and formulation. The exhibition in Arnhem pertained to art purchased by the State during the war. This does not mean that the artists concerned were all collaborationists. A great many artists had no influence whatsoever over who purchased their work, as sales were often made by dealers.

In Escher’s case, he was no Nazi sympathizer. Indeed, he showed a considerable degree of contempt towards the occupier during the Second World War. He felt deeply uncomfortable at the fact that he was permitted to exhibit his work during the war whilst his Jewish artist friends were not. He repeatedly refused to participate in public events organized by the occupier and did not register with the Kultuurkamer (‘Chamber of Culture’) on principle. That took courage, and it also entailed consequences. Artists not affiliated with the Kultuurkamer were not allowed to practise their profession or exhibit or sell their work. When one of his prints was nevertheless exhibited without his permission, Escher wrote (20 December 1942):

‘Isn’t it preposterous? On the one hand we’re not allowed to exhibit personally, and on the other we’re forced to participate, which is tantamount to possessing our work against our will.’

He was particularly aggrieved when it emerged that his teacher and dear friend Jessurun de Mesquita had been deported, and so Escher did his utmost to salvage his work. And after the war, when the Rijksmuseum staged the exhibition Kunst in Vrijheid (‘Art in Freedom’) displaying the work of artists that had refused to comply with the Nazis’ requirements, Escher took part as well, with four lithographs and a drawing. So no, the ‘collaborationist art’ label does not apply to Escher’s work.

As De Rijk said: ‘The topic of Nazi design is charged and potentially explosive’. Which is why caution is warranted when writing on such topics. An incorrect association is easily generated.

I’m afraid the article in the Volkskrant was published in Dutch, nevertheless you can find it here.

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