Hope all is well and that you’re finding joy in every day things! Today I ordered a tosti (which is essentially a grilled sandwich) with ham, cheese, and… pineapple. The Dutch are very intense about their sandwiches. I feel like I am starting to become part of the family over at “Coffee And Art,” my favorite cafe. I see the owners almost every day while I eat various sandwiches and type away at my laptop. That is what I mean about living a beautiful life, even when you don’t have a ton of time. Choosing spaces that bring you happiness- like a coffee shop surrounded by affordable woodblock prints- to do copious amounts of Dutch homework.
A couple weeks ago I made it to the Hague to interview Debbie Young and Katarina Sidorova. You can read that interview here. But I also made time to check out the Escher Museum, located in the famous ‘winter palace’ of Queen Emma of the Netherlands. I always find it fascinating to see how museums that are dedicated to a single artist curate their exhibitions. How do you keep one artist’s work- by nature stagnant, as he or she cannot create any new works- fresh?
The way that Escher in Het Palais is set up succeeds at this challenge in a unique way. The first two floors break down Escher’s work into various categories- areas in which he showed great interest, like Tessellation, Infinity, and the Natural World. On the third floor, there is an exhibition of contemporary optical illusions that have built off of Escher’s designs. In this post I would like to focus on the first two floors. Pay attention to how the various categories serve to separate Escher’s interests, but also act as general themes that run through all of his designs. You can find pieces of every category in every work. Escher in Het Palais is a masterpiece of traditional curation, as well as a celebration of Escher’s psychedelic prints.
Here is a picture of the outside of the museum:
The first category I encountered was entitled “Escher and the Natural World.”
Escher’s early forays into art show his time exploring the European countryside. He drew detailed depictions of mountains and cottages that were actually syntheses of what he saw, rather than perfect copies. He captured the essence of places by piecing together various motifs in a single work. In the following drawing and woodcut, one can see how Escher shifted the perspective of his drawing and added details to create a more unified picture in his final woodcut.
This is the pencil drawing entitled Morano, Calabria (1930).
And here is a woodcut of the same scene: Morano, Calabria (1930).
Note how the same town has been shifted to the right in the woodcut. The sweeping arc of the mountain is much more visually pleasing when it directs the eye left to right and upwards. Additionally, the horizontal string of clouds adds depth to the woodcut by indicating the space between different mountains.
Synthesizing a scene is controversial. Some find it to be “untrue” to the authenticity of a work. I believe that there is a difference between drawing what you see and drawing what you feel. Oftentimes, being in a beautiful place is a result of feeling the presence of everything around you. Even if a mountain behind you is not in your plane of vision, juxtaposing it with the scene before you allows you to provide the viewer with your sense of place, rather than a photographic copy of it.
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Escher’s interest in nature remained even as he moved away from landscapes. In fact, much of his work explored abstract themes, unnatural worlds, and mathematical subjects, but nature remained a prevailing theme.
This is Day and Night (1938), a woodcut in black and blue, printed from two blocks.
This is a wonderful example of Escher’s interest in nature permeating his exploration into optical illusion and mathematical design. Watch how birds and squares meld into each other in a mind-bending illusion. Symmetry plays a large role in the aesthetic quality of this work- it is pleasing to see how the disintegration from square into bird occurs on both sides of the paper. Furthermore, the white winding street and the black winding street create two poles that are both similar and different. Day and Night is structured on the notion of opposites, and the pattern of repeating opposition is what gives Day and Night its pleasing quality.
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Next, I came upon a selection of prints grouped by the title, “Escher and Perspective.”
Escher was fascinated by the way different vantage points could influence the appearance of a building. He explored how looking at spaces from different heights affected the mood of a scene.
This is a woodcut entitled, Grote Markt, Delft (1939).
The high vantage point makes the people below look tiny and unidentifiable. Thus, one’s focus is drawn to the buildings of the market. These modestly sized buildings- note they are only several stories high- look larger because they are looked at from high above. The shadows formed from this vantage point are also stark and looming, which adds to the dramatic view.
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This engraving, entitled Inside Saint Peter’s (1935), is also depicted from a high vantage point, but as if one’s face is tilted almost entirely to the floor.
The decorated floor is a central focus of this engraving. Because so much of the paper is taken up by floor, one gets the sense that he is leaning over a railing, peering down from above. There is something almost nauseating about this view (or maybe I just suffer from vertigo). The words written on the wall of the church are also a major highlight of this vantage point. They are a fragment of a longer phrase: et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. This translates to: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
This is significant for several reasons. First, it makes sense that a church would bear these letters, as prayer is believed to lead to salvation in the Christian faith. Furthermore, the fact that these words are written at a point high up in the church directly parallels the notion that Heaven is above us. The normal visitor to the church would view these words from below, staring up at them as he looked up towards Heaven. Escher has turned this narrative around. Now, the viewer looks down on these words, and down onto the floor of the church. It is not an anti-religious statement, but a statement about art, religion, and architecture, and the way we attach meanings to symbols.
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Many of Escher’s works explore the concept of infinity. Is it possible in our world? How can infinity be depicted on a two-dimensional surface, a medium that is inherently finite? “Escher and Infinity” demonstrates how Escher used optical illusions to experiment with infinity.
This is Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell) (1960), a black and ochre woodcut printed from two blocks.
Note how the bats and angels in this lithograph become progressively smaller as they reach the outer boundaries of the circle. This would suggest a finite end at the boundaries of this shape. However, Escher has used shading and perspective to give this circle the three-dimensionality of a sphere. Thus, it appears that we are only seeing a portion of the shape. It follows, then, that the bat/angel motif would repeat well beyond the surface area of the sphere shown here. Perhaps infinitely, into the unknown. In this way Escher utilizes the idea of space- space we cannot see- to suggest infinity.
Here is my favorite lithograph, entitled Ascending and Descending (1960).
Notice how the figures on the stairs are always ascending, but are never table to reach the top of the staircase. In fact, there IS no top to this staircase. How is it, then, that we do not see the figures descending? It is an optical illusion that forces the eye to move, infinitely, around and around this staircase, hoping to make sense of an impossible thing.
Note also, how Escher utilizes an extreme vantage point to add drama to this scene. Like Grote Markt, Delft, the tower in Ascending and Descending appears taller and more mighty because it is drawn from above. The angle is neither bird’s eye nor straight-on. It is a mix of the two that tricks the eye into seeing a larger image than reality would suggest.
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” Escher and Tessellation” illustrates some of Escher’s most fascinating works. They have been replicated by mathematicians across the world since their creation in the mid-2oth century.
Tessellation is a division of planes according to the rules of symmetry. There are seventeen different ways that shapes can tessellate. Escher discovered these important mathematical variations on his own, through strategic experimentation. As you can see, Escher’s experiments into tessellation also illustrate his continued interest in the natural world, and the concept of infinity.
This is one of my favorite tessellations.
It is fascinating how Escher used the negative space of one creature to form the positive space of another.
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The last of the categories I will discuss today is Escher and Impossible Worlds.
In addition to his landscapes, his tessellations, and his forays into infinity, Escher explored the concept of new worlds that abide by different laws of physics. Ascending and Descending can also be seen as a member of this category, although I wanted to view it in relation to infinity, because of the effect is has on the frustrated viewer. The optical illusion formed by this otherwise ordinary building is a wonderful example of a new world that does not abide by our rules.
Here is another, a lithograph entitled Cube with Ribbons (1957).
It takes a moment to see what is so peculiar about this work. Is it not just a group of circles situated within a prism? But then- which circle is inside which? Viewing Cube with Ribbons is an experience of oscillating between two perceptions of this lithograph that cannot exist simultaneously… in this world.
I could say many things about Escher’s explorations of new worlds with different scientific and mathematical laws. Perhaps their creation is a manifestation of the inability, post-World War II, to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb. After all, many post-war art movements centered around abstraction as a means of coping with the genocides of the last ten years. It is possible that Escher, a European, was responding to this sentiment in his own way. But- I will not overanalyze too deeply. I will just leave that thought with you. After all, it is important to consider context when looking at any works of art. The art of the 1950s and 1960s was inextricably linked to the pain caused by the mass killings of the 1940s.
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I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Escher has always had a special place in my heart. My father bought me a book about Escher and a print for my wall when I was quite young. I recently had it reframed and it now hangs across from my bed, reminding me of the possibility of infinite, alternative worlds.
Here is a selfie I took at Het Palais and sent to everyone I know:
And now, because I just cannot resist, here are a few more photographs of works I found really interesting. Take a look, and see if you can spot motifs from nature, extreme vantage points, tessellation, or infinity. Pardon the glare on some of the works- think of it as adding character!
Hope you enjoyed this ~trippy~ post. Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe ❤