In 1935, as fascism was rising in Italy and storm clouds of World War II shadowed Europe, the artist M.C. Escher decided the situation had gotten so bad in Rome, where he was living, that he had to move out. He took his family to Switzerland, then Brussels, and finally back to his native Netherlands.
The moves coincided with a dramatic change in his art. He stopped drawing realistic depictions of the hills and towns of Italy. Instead he turned inward, developing the mind-bending dreamscapes and no-exit stairways by which he’s still famous today.
Among the first examples of this transformation was his 1938 woodcut “Day and Night,” which is on view in an exhibition of more than 50 of his artworks, “M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 3 to May 28.
On the left, a flock of black geese fly in formation over daytime Dutch farm fields, a bending river, and a tiny village ringing a cathedral. On the right is a mirror image of the same scene, this time with white birds gliding over the landscape at night.
Most discussion of this print today follows Escher’s own take—marveling at the patterns and optical illusions of the picture, at the way the birds seem to emerge dreamlike out of the squares of the farm fields, at the mirroring of the two sides of the composition, at Escher’s penchant for mutating flat patterns into three-dimensional illusion, at how, as a printmaker, he was attuned to reversals because of the ways images are reversed from the printing plate to paper.
But in anxious February 1938, when he made the print, couldn’t “Day and Night” have been read as imagining two visions of the Netherlands, of Europe? One is sunny and perhaps already lost to the past, the other version is cast into darkness.
Wildly Undulating Hills
Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, in 1898, the fourth son of a civil engineer. He grew up there and, after age 5, in Arnhem. In 1919, he began studying to be an architect at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. There he met a teacher named Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, who was impressed by Escher’s graphic work.
“He insisted that I go on with” my woodcuts, Escher recounted in 1968. “If he had not talked with my parents, I would have gone into architecture. And I never really wanted to build houses. Only madhouses.”
Though M.C. Escher’s mature work can be seen as a variety of surrealism, he operated outside the modernist art movements of the West. For the most part, even to this day, his art is ignored by standard art history surveys and museum canons. The Museum of Fine Arts describes its exhibition as the “first exhibition of original prints by the Dutch artist in Boston.”
Escher’s early work from the 1910s and ‘20s was typical student stuff—self-portraits, naked ladies, skulls and religious subjects (Garden of Eden, St. Francis). Then he pursued his own path by making sketching trips to Italy, beginning in 1921. He met a woman by the name of Jetta Umiker there two years later, and married her in 1924. They settled in Rome, where they lived for 11 years and had two sons.
In Italy, at first, Escher pursued religious themes (the Biblical story of creation, “The Fall of Man,” the Tower of Babel) and mystical imagery (a massive castle floating in the air, a cathedral flooded up to its roof). But after the low country flatness of the Netherlands, he was entranced by the rugged hills and centuries-old stone architecture of Italy. “I shall probably have to stay here for months to learn to understand these wildly undulating hills and luxuriant plant life,” he wrote in 1922.
Escher traveled about sketching in summers, then worked on woodcuts and lithographs in winters in his studio above the living quarters in the family’s Rome apartment. His prints depicted the narrow streets of Abruzzi, a cathedral perched atop the cliffs of the shore at Atrani, the terraced hills of Amalfi, the mountains of Sicily. His renderings are realistic, but knowing what comes later, you note his preference for dramatic perspectives and sense his inclination to twist and warp space.
His 1935 lithograph “Hand with Reflecting Sphere,” offers a glimpse of where he was headed. “He was actually interested in art history. Like ‘Hand with Reflecting Sphere, that’s something that dates back to Netherlandish art of the 15th century,” says Ronni Baer, who curated the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition. “The glisten, the gleam, the attempt to capture surfaces are the things Dutch painters back to the 15th century are known for.”
But the reflecting sphere also presents a warped, fish-eye perspective of Escher sitting in his Rome studio. His drawing table—where he would whistle Bach and Dutch folksongs as he worked—stands below the window in the background. Perhaps Escher, who would leave this home that July, wanted to capture a sort of memory of it in a bubble.
“In 1935, the political climate in Italy became totally unacceptable to him. He had no interest in politics,” Bruno Ernst wrote in his 1978 book “The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher.” “But he was averse to fanaticism and hypocrisy. When his eldest son, George, was forced, at the age of 9, to wear the Balilla uniform of the Fascist Youth in school, the family decided to leave Italy.”
One of the first prints Escher seems to have made after departing Italy was a November 1935 lithograph in which he copied Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century painting of “Hell.”
The Escher family spent two years in the mountainous Swiss village of Chateau-d’Oex. Then in August 1937, they moved to the Brussels suburb of Ukkel, where their third son was born. The Germans invaded in May 1940. The following February, the family moved to Baarn in German-occupied Holland. There Escher would reside until 1970, two years before his death.
But before he returned home to Holland, Escher and Jetta made a boat cruise around Mediterranean ports for two months in the spring of 1936. This included a visit to the landmark 14th century Islamic palace at Alhambra, the Mosque at Cordoba, and other nearby Muslim sites. Escher had been to Alhambra in 1922—the same year he created his woodcut “Eight Heads,” one of his first prints to show his propensity for patterns.
Now electrified by the dazzling, decorative geometric patterns of the wall mosaics, “he becomes interested in tessellations and really explores them continuously throughout his life,” Baer says. These became his famed interlocking, wriggling designs of birds, fish and frogs, with their curious sense of duality, that one thing can suddenly, magically transform into something else.
This coincided with another shift in Escher’s art. “The fact that, from 1938 onwards, I concentrated more on the interpretation of personal ideas was primarily the result of my departure from Italy,” Escher wrote in his 1959 book, “Graphics and Drawings of M.C. Escher.” “In Switzerland, Belgium and Holland where I successively established myself, I found the outward appearance of landscape and architecture less striking than that which is particularly to be seen in the southern part of Italy. Thus I felt compelled to withdraw from the more or less direct and true-to-life illustrating of my surroundings. No doubt this circumstance was to a high degree responsible for bringing my inner visions into being.”
“They’re poetic images. They’re not hard to understand, but they’re not something you might apprehend in nature. There’s also a lot of whimsy,” Baer says. Escher has a mix of “playfulness and mathematics that you don’t often see in one place.”
Escher endeavored to invent his own psychologically charged worlds in which wondrous magic was possible. In his art, the murderous political realities of Europe were but a whisper. But this is when he made his 1938 woodcut “Day and Night.” This is when he made his 1946 mezzotint “Eye,” which suggests that he remained haunted by the war—and he would be for decades. It’s a close-up depiction of his own eye with a skull appearing in the pupil. It’s “the Good Man Bones,” Escher explained in 1964, “with whom we are all confronted whether we like it or not.”
“I was not involved with the Resistance, but I had many Jewish friends who were killed,” Escher recalled in 1968. Among them were de Mesquita and his family—the teacher who’d encouraged him to abandon his studies of architecture for his art. “In 1944, during the famine winter, I wanted to bring them something, apples. … I walked to their house. The windows on the first floor were broken. The neighbors said: ‘You haven’t heard? The de Mesquitas have been taken away.’ This [drawing] lay on the floor with the impressions of the cleats from the Krauts’ boots. It was lying under the staircase. And in his studio everything was a mess, everything on the floor. … Afterwards I blamed myself. … Really terrible, you know, such sweet people, carried away like cattle to be butchered.”
Longing For The Impossible
The MFA exhibition includes nearly all Escher’s famous works. In his magic realist 1943 lithograph “Reptiles,” alligators crawl out of one of his pattern drawings into “real” life, wandering across his desk and back into the drawing. In his 1948 lithograph “Drawing Hands,” two hands seem to draw each other into existence.
“I can’t keep from fooling around with our irrefutable certainties. It is, for example, a pleasure knowingly to mix up two- and three-dimensionalities, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity,” Escher said in a 1965 speech.
In his 1953 lithograph “Relativity,” faceless characters wander impossible stairways that turn up and down and sideways in defiance of gravity. In his 1960 lithograph “Ascending and Descending,” lines of people trudge around the impossible stairways circling a castle top. “When they are tired, they can change direction and descent for a while,” Escher wrote in 1964. “But both notions, though not without an abstruse meaning, are equally useless.”
There is the heart of Escher—wonder tempered by an abiding sense of futility and loneliness. “It sometimes seems to me that we are all afflicted with an urge and possessed by a longing for the impossible,” he wrote in 1958. “The reality around us, the three-dimensional world surrounding us, is too common, too dull, too ordinary for us. We hanker after the unnatural or supernatural, that which does not exist, a miracle.”
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