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Relativity (part II)

In Relativity I, I examined the changing perspectives that Escher applied in a series of prints, which create the impression that you need to rotate these works to uncover all their possibilities. I noted that Escher himself referred to the print Relativity as a study into the “relativity of the function of the flat surface”.* In the book M.C. Escher Grafiek en Tekeningen, published in 1959, he discussed a number of prints in-depth.

He had this to say about Relativity:

“In the illustration three forces of gravity are working perpendicularly to one another. Three earth-planes cut across each other at right angles, and human beings are living on each of them. It is impossible for two inhabitants of different worlds to walk or sit or stand on the same floor, because they have different perceptions of what is horizontal and what is vertical. Yet they may well share the use of the same staircase. On the top staircase illustrated here, two people are moving side by side and in the same direction, and yet one of them is going downstairs and the other upstairs. Contact between them is out of the question because they live in different worlds and therefore can have no knowledge of each other’s existence.”**

In the figure above, I have assigned a number to the three worlds. Escher very cleverly toys with our perceptions. He uses a staircase as the connecting element, in which the undersides have not been cut away. The staircase is connected to the outside world, the world outside the print, through pseudo-Romanesque passageways. By cunningly bringing together architectural elements with which we are all familiar, Escher prompts us to unquestioningly accept the impossible constructions of these prints. Presumably, we do not even notice them at first.

Incidentally, Escher had used similar passageways before (in 1947), in the print Other world.

There are a few examples of other post-war prints that feature these types of passageways. On further reflection, this begs the question: was Escher aware of these in real life? Anyone who has read his autobiography could be forgiven for thinking that he probably encountered them in Italy, during the thirteen years that he lived, worked and traveled there. However, neither in this work, nor in the photo albums up to 1935 can we find any direct links. Imagine my surprise and delight therefore when, a few years ago, at the behest of a maths teacher at Arnhemse Lorentz Scholen Gemeenschap, I found myself standing in the old HBS school of Escher!*** In fact, I was astounded.

It is this place that holds the key to the three major works that Escher created more than thirty years after leaving school: Other world and Up and down, both dating from 1947 and Relativity, a woodcut and virtually identical lithograph which he made in 1953. Escher attended the HBS in Arnhemse Schoolstraat from 1912 to 1918. The staircase of that school incorporates many elements that feature in all of the three prints. Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. The similarities are so striking that they simply cannot be considered mere coincidence. As Escher’s friend, journalist and art critic, Hein van ’s-Gravensande, said as early as the 1930s, Escher’s art revealed: “the synthesis” (what we nowadays would call the essence) of his design.

The first thing that permeates your mind when you walk into his old school is Relativity.

Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014
M.C. Escher, Relativity, woodcut, July 1953

Look around you, and you will see the inspiration for Other world:
Photograph by Micky Piller
M.C. Escher, Other world, wood engraving and woodcut in black, reddish brown and green, printed from three blocks, January 1947

Carry on and turn around, and you will see the similarities with Up and down!
Impresson of the staircase at the 'HBS Arnhem 1913', photo Studio Gerrit Schreurs, 2014
M.C. Escher, Up and down, lithograph in brown, July 1947

The similarities between the central part of the school building – dating from 1905 and where Escher spent so much time between 1912 and 1918 – and the three world-famous prints are staggering.

Knowing what we know now, it is easy to understand where Escher found his inspiration for Other world and Relativity. The confrontation between reality and Up and down seems slightly more complex, though not impossible if we bear in mind Escher’s desire to seamlessly connect the two and three dimensional worlds. In that context, it is plausible to suggest that the staircase of his old school in particular played a pivotal role. Escher was a typical pre-war teenager with deep feelings and passions who found it difficult to express himself. He grew up in a loving and caring family and had close friends who cared deeply about him. They made music together and with his friend Bas Kist he enrolled in classes with the local painter and printmaker Gert Stegeman. In a later interview, Escher described his time at secondary school as a living hell.

Nevertheless, in 1947 he created a memorial plaque for that same HBS school, in memory of pupils and former pupils who had perished during the Second World War, including those who were residing in the former Dutch East Indies at the time.

This plaque was unveiled on 22 November 1947 ****, probably to belatedly commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the school. It is likely that Escher returned to his old school and that he was present at the unveiling, but also that he conducted a few preliminary meetings with the school. Furthermore, as part of the anniversary celebrations a small exhibition was staged with works “by a number of former pupils, who have turned the visual arts into their life’s work”, as revealed in the book of remembrance of the HBS of 1966.

So how should we relate Escher’s experiences of secondary school, which he so detested, to these three prints? Can I detect any of the boredom of that thirteen- or fourteen-year old boy in these works? Would that boy, whilst walking so angrily through that building, have noticed that strange staircase, where the bottom of the next stair, when viewed from a different angle, turns out to be another staircase? Was he looking into new rooms through pseudo-Romanesque windows? Did his teenage imagination allow him to rotate rooms and stairs in his mind, and create perpetual staircases?

Maurits Escher, the man who created such mind-boggling prints, once said of himself: “I am only good at copying things.” He omitted to mention that he was also a dab hand at combining certain elements (as I quoted earlier in this article):

“Three forces of gravity are working perpendicularly to one another. Three earth-planes cut across each other at right angles, and human beings are living on each of them. It is impossible for two inhabitants of different worlds to walk or sit or stand on the same floor, because they have different perceptions of what is horizontal and what is vertical.” **

Suddenly, everything comes together: the rotation in Other world and Relativity, and this seamless transition of different perspectives or, as he called it, “forces of gravity”.

Although more than thirty years had passed between Escher’s secondary school days in Arnhem and the creation of these works, it is not too far-fetched to suggest or assume that a possible visit in 1946 or 1947 rekindled all those old memories.

Source of quotations:

* “Relativity of the function of a flat”, in: Escher on Escher – Exploring the infinite, with a contribution by J.W. Vermeulen; translated from Dutch by Karin Ford; Abrams, New York 1989, p. 73.

** 2006 Reprint, published by Taschen GMBH of M.C. Escher Grafiek en Tekeningen, introduced by the printmaker; originally published by Koninklijke uitgeverij J.J. Tijl NV, Zwolle 1959, p. 15.

*** The Lorentz Scholen Gemeenschap in Arnhem is the successor of the HBS that Escher attended in the Schoolstraat (nowadays at number 35). Pieter van der Kuil teaches mathematics there. He is enormously interested in the local Arnhem and Oosterbeek history.

**** There is something slightly odd about this war memorial. Behind the stone lurks a drawing that is far more elaborate than this plaque. It contains the names of the (former) pupils who died during the war. Those names are missing from this small monument. Was Escher aware of this? He was notoriously fastidious about how his designs were executed. His arguments with architects about their inaccurate representation of his drawings are legendary.
This stone was relocated to the new HSB building along Apeldoornseweg. Presumably those names did not move with the stone? The plaque almost disappeared for good following internal renovation work, but thanks to the intervention of the mathematics teacher, Pieter van der Kuil, the memorial plaque has remained in place at Lorentz Scholen Gemeenschap.

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