It goes without saying that Escher lives on in his work, as befits a good artist. Yet there’s more, much more. There’s an archive. A treasure trove of family photos, travel journals, letters and diaries.
Reading someone’s diary feels like furtively rifling through their personal life. A hasty peek as soon as they are out the room. Keeping an eye on the door, as they could return at any moment. That’s also how I am feeling as the brand new curator of Escher in The Palace, opening Escher’s travel journals for the first time. The difference being that I am entitled to peruse them for as long as I please. Escher will not be coming back to rap me on the knuckles – after all, he died in 1972.
Nonetheless, a great deal of his life and ideas have survived him. A plethora of journals, diaries and correspondence have been beautifully preserved and are available for consultation in the archive. The meticulously compiled photo albums are a gold mine. Escher was an avid photographer. Not only did he capture his loved ones, he also took photos of landscapes and architecture to serve as inspiration for his work. Everything was stuck in albums with great precision. The photos were often accompanied by dates and locations, which he would write next to them with a pen. Something he did quite deliberately, for posterity. The evidence for this is to be found in a letter he wrote to his son in 1958, encouraging him to take photographs of himself ‘for future generations’. In his own words:
‘So get to it and start showing off in front of the camera, with close-ups, facial expressions, and so on. Don’t forget: it’s really important’.
And so it is. Because we now know what Escher looked like in his youth, what fascinated him and what he loved. We are looking through the lens with him and seeing what he was focused on. We see a young Jetta through the eyes of an Escher very much in love, shortly before she became his wife. We see them together in Italy, where they were at their happiest, and we see them on their wedding day.
Through Escher’s eyes
We see the Italian landscape, through Escher’s eyes. A landscape that will go on to be a recurring motif in his work. We witness his travels with friends and we read his commentary and his experiences in his travel journals. Thereby coming to understand him. As an artist, but also as a human being. These two things being inseparable.
After all, Escher was an aesthete and printmaker in his heart and soul. No failed holiday snaps here. Even in his photography Escher is constantly using the graphic qualities of his subject. Chiaroscuro, visual axes, depth of field, poignant portraits – he managed to get the very best out of all these elements. Even in a regular family album. And leafing through his albums you understand that that is just the way he looked at the world. How he wanted to see the world. It could not have been any other way.
Beans and carrots
His diaries are interesting too. Particularly since they were not intended to be read by future generations. They do not contain any window dressing, and neither is there any showing off in front of a camera. Just notes important at that time. No frills. And that is precisely what makes them so thrilling. We have all but one of his pocket diaries from 1923 to 1944. All sorts of things are included in them. The people he was meeting, what he was working on, the concerts he was attending (plenty of Bach!) as well as ostensibly unimportant everyday things, such as: 1 June 1940:
‘sown: all French beans, all carrots.’
We read shopping lists, which get increasingly meagre during the war. We see that his weight is frighteningly low on 23 June 1942 – ‘47 kg’ – and that a year on he starts growing his own tobacco in his own garden. Likely to feed his addiction during the war.
Generally speaking, the notes in his diary are exceedingly concise. Now and then he makes an exception. On 10 May 1941, for instance, he writes:
‘Treacherous invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands by Germany in 1940’.
And on 31 December 1943:
‘6 p.m.: order from the Wehrmacht (through local authority) to vacate house at Beetslaan 20 within 5 days’.
And nearly a year later on 11 September 1944:
‘First allied boots on Dutch soil’.
The next day he reports:
‘wild rumours about a full-scale German retreat’,
which subsequently turns out to be a false alarm.
The more we know…
And why would we want to know all of this? A fair question. Because we can! Well, I would say that. Perhaps because I am the new curator and therefore keen to garner as much information as possible on Escher. But obviously also because it provides a glimpse of the kind of person Escher was, what preoccupied him, what motivated him. And the more we know about him, the better we are able to understand, interpret and place his work. As Escher wrote: