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Yearning for the sea

‘I speak about it with all kinds of people, but only a seasoned cargo boat passenger can understand what I’m talking about. And you never (or very rarely) come across such people on land’,

Escher wrote this to his son Arthur. Escher was yearning for the sea. He had a profound love of the sea and everything associated with it. His passion for the sea and maritime life often surfaces in his work.

Throughout his life, Escher went on countless voyages on cargo ships, read books on the sea and produced a variety of works about the sea. And he was quite capable of describing it beautifully. Whereas I am not getting beyond referring to it as merely ‘the sea’, he wrote lyrically of the ‘fluid mass’, the ‘liquid element’ and the ‘womb of the waters’. Perhaps ironically, Escher often wrote about the sea whilst on terra firma, when he was in wistful spirits and feeling the eternal call of salt water.

Phosphorescent Sea

His fascination with the sea occasioned a couple of his finest works. Never have I seen the moonlit sea depicted quite as I have in Lichtende zee (Phosphorescent Sea) from 1933. Waves roll silently towards the shore. Stars pepper the black sky, white crests shine in an inky sea. Back then, Escher got to see what a lot of Dutch people saw at the coast the previous summer, something that caused a stir: sea sparkle. Algae that, it turns out, are not dangerous at all, but give off light (bioluminescence) when disturbed in the sea. This makes the crests of waves phosphorescent, turning a moonlit swim into a magical experience. Sea sparkle is a gift from the sea, with everything produced by humankind paling in comparison. As though nature is quietly saying: ‘Nice try, everyone, but look at what I can do.’

Capturing amazement

Whereas nowadays we race to get our smartphones out the moment we see something beautiful, Escher concocted a new lithographic technique. A little more time-consuming, but the idea is more or less the same. In July 1933, evening after evening he would stand at the high-water mark on the beach at Scheveningen around midnight, subsequently returning to his studio to experiment with splash painting techniques. This enabled him to capture the swelling and rippling in a wave with tremendous accuracy, his amazement immortalized in Phosphorescent Sea.

Call of the sea

Escher’s yearning for the sea was so strong that the sound of a brush passing through his wife’s hair evoked in him a sense of the sound of waves lapping at the shore. All of a sudden he could not bear to be on land any longer and signed on with a ship at his earliest opportunity. During such trips, he would spend as much time as possible up on deck beholding the world around him. He immersed himself in the isolation and the simplicity of life on board a ship.

Merry afternoon

It wasn’t only nature that he subjected to scrutiny – he also treated his fellow passengers on cargo ships as interesting objects of study too, as the following pages from one of his sea voyage journals reveal. On the left-hand page he jotted down the names of the passengers and crew on board the vessel. On the right-hand page he wrote the nautical terms for the food he was given: liver sausage, stinking Henry; spinach, cow dung; salt-cured meat soup, bark; red cabbage, merry afternoon.

When he wasn’t at sea, he was reading about it. Such as the book The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. With all the consequences this entailed, as evidenced by a letter to his son:

‘[…] the irksome upshot for the time being is that I am pining for a boat trip. She [Carson] describes that liquid element, with an overview of all its associated facets and problems, in such an enthralling manner, with precision and poetry, that it is driving me half insane. This is exactly the kind of reading material I, with my advancing years, need most: a stimulus from our mother earth for my spatial imagination. […] It is kindling in me intense inspiration to create a new print, which may not have any direct relation to the sea, but which will see me endeavour, for the umpteenth time, to indulge my sense for the suggestion of three-dimensional space’.

Observation transformed into a metamorphosis

Escher created a variety of prints on the sea, such as the inimitable The Second Day of Creation (The division of the waters), The Fifth Day of Creation and Dolphins.

M.C. Escher, The Second Day of Creation (The division of the waters), woodcut, 1925
M.C. Escher, The Fifth Day of Creation, woodcut, 1926

When you read of his observations from on deck, they are redolent of his work:

‘Flying fish are more numerous the warmer the sea gets. The first example I saw I thought was a bird for a moment, sweeping low over the water. But when it suddenly disappeared without trace, I realized it had been a fish. Later on I had ample opportunity to see them, and in the Caribbean Sea there were swarms of hundreds of them, darting up out of the water together.  When an entire school of that size all jump out a smooth sea simultaneously, they cross-hatch the surface with a system of long, parallel or radial lines, which come to an abrupt end at the site where the fish falls back into the sea. Sometimes an invisible submerged school would be startled by our vessel’s approach and then would come flying out radially, like shrapnel from an exploding bomb, with the bow as the epicentre’.

Escher observes nature with the eyes of a graphic artist. And in those eyes, an observation is transformed into a metamorphosis. The swimming of fish becomes a pattern.


Escher read the following:

  • The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson.
  • Under The Sea-wind, Rachel Carson.
  • Mensen en de zee, Joseph Conrad.
  • Een eerlijk zeemansgraf, J. Slauerhoff.
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville (indeed, he read this four times during his life, and it was on his bedside table along with Tolstoy’s War And Peace in the final weeks of his life).

Escher was also a big fan of the documentary Le Monde du silence/The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. One of the first films on life underwater from 1956. A fantastic document of its time. Fan? Then don’t forget to watch the parody of the films of Cousteau, The Life Aquatic by Wes Anderson, and immerse yourself in the world of the sea.

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