Saturday, 8 March 2014

Bruno Ernst on M.C. Escher

My search for a Dutch book for European Reading Challenge came to a happy conclusion when I remembered that earlier this year I had read Bruno Ernst’s The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher. What could be more Dutch than an art book about the great Escher?

Ernst’s book provides a thorough introduction to the man and painter. Originally published in 1978, it was the first popular book on Escher, with whom the author corresponded. One day, piqued by a picture on the wall of the school he worked at, he started talking about it with a colleague, who told him the artist was his neighbour. Ernst wrote to Escher and received an invitation to interview him. Thus began a relationship that lasted years until Escher’s death in 1972. Ernst was allowed to study his work in loco, had access to his sketches, preparatory studies and pictorial researches, and managed to analyse the evolution of his career. It resulted in the first systematic analysis of his methods, themes and purposes.

First of all, the man. M. C. Escher was born in 1898. He was a bad student, showing talent only in the two weekly hours devoted to painting. But even at Art he failed to get good grades. In 1919 his father sent him to a technical school to study architecture, since he showed some artistic talent. But a teacher, Samuel Jesserun de Mesquita, who taught woodcutting, convinced Escher’s father to change his course. Escher showed diligence and tenacity, but according to his teachers he lacked spontaneity and ideas. Learning oil painting or aquarelles did not interest him. He deliberately limited the number of media, preferring to excel at one or two instead of experimenting with several of them. In 1922 he left school, adroit at woodcutting.  He never stopped being in contact with Mesquita, to whom he sent proofs of his work. Ernst tells us that Escher kept a photo of his master on a shelf in his studio. It is said that he was also proud of his pupil’s talent. Mesquita’s fate was a tragic one. He was a Jewish descendant of the Portuguese Sephardi expelled from Portugal in the 17th century (mesquita, bizarrely, is the Portuguese word for mosque). In January or February 1944, German troops invaded his house and took Mesquita and his family away. It is presumed that they all died in a concentration camp. Not long after the arrest Escher went to his house, finding the door open and the windows all shattered; he quickly amassed all the papers and drawings lying on the floor and took them with him, in all 160 documents which he later donated to an Amsterdam museum to preserve the memory of his teacher. The photo he kept was found on the floor, dirtied by the boots of soldiers.

In the Spring of 1922 Escher and two friends travelled through central Italy. In Autumn of the same year he returned there alone. After a short stay in Cadiz he took a boat to Genoa and spent two seasons in Sienna, where he made his first woodcuts of Italian landscapes. There he also met Jetta Umiker, whom he married in 1924. It is also known that in 1926 he visited the Alhambra for the first time. Until 1935 he lived in Italy: in the Spring he’d spend two months in the Abruzzi and Campania, sketching. He travelled by train and on foot, with a bad on his back, as if camping. He had been to the Abruzzi for the first time in 1929. Ernst narrates an incident with the Carabinieri, suspicious of this wandering foreigner. He was virtually unknown at the time, having only illustrated some books and hosted joint exhibitions with others. In 1935, however, because of the political climate in Italy, he relocated. Escher didn’t care about politics, but he didn’t want to see his son dressed in the uniform of the fascist youth. He resettled in Switzerland for a while, detesting the weather. In 1936 he wrote to a boat company that had cargo ships with passenger cabins suggesting that they let him travel in them in exchange for woodcuts. Incredibly, they accepted the offer. With Jetta he visited the South of Spain, and returned to the Alhambra, which would have tremendous influence on his future work. In Cartagena he was temporarily detained by the police because they found it suspicious that a foreigner was making drawings of old forts along the hills. Thinking he was a spy, he was taken to the precinct, where his drawings were confiscated, and he barely missed the ship. In 1937 he moved to Belgium, but when World War II started it became difficult for him to live there, feeling the xenophobia around him: for the Belgians he was a foreigner using up necessary resources. In 1941 he moved back to Holland, settling in Baarn. He lived there until his death. Meanwhile his father had died in 1939, without seeing his son achieve success. Around the time he moved to Baarn his work started evolving in a new direction, and he created the first woodcuts and lithographs that would make him worldwide famous. But he didn’t know fame before 1951, when an issue of The Studio magazine ran an article by Marc Severin on him. That year he finally started making money from his woodcuts. Ernst writes that in 1951 he managed to sell 88 prints. In 1954 he had sold 338. Up until then he had supported himself with work for hire.

The man Ernst describes is generous, helpful and talkative to those who contacted him, replying to letters and inviting curious people to his house. Escher was commercially minded and like to see his work disseminated and known by the public. He always authorized new prints of his lithographs whenever there was demand. For him, there was nothing wrong with the mass production of his art. Nevertheless he was a shy, reclusive man who lived modestly and didn’t like to leave his house or see other people. He liked to be alone with his work, immersed in studies and experiments. Ernst, however, informs us that he didn’t hang his work at home or in the studio.

Aesthetically Escher was out of tune with modern art. His materials were wood for woodcutting or stone for lithographs, two of the oldest known materials; unlike his contemporaries, who revolutionized art by trying out every new material to produce artwork, Escher preferred what was known and tested. He mostly used black and white because dualism was an integral component of his artistic thought. He did not care about expressing himself through his art. For him art was a game that entertained him. Until 1940 he was mainly interested in illustration and painting landscapes and villas; after that he began focusing solely on illustration, exploring the limits of what could be drawn on a bi-dimensional plane. Ernst shows us an artist fully committed to perfection, obsessed with research, capable of spending months in a single woodcut before publically divulging it. For each one he drew several sketches. He was always exploring the same idea, refining it; Ernst identifies several key concepts in his work: infinity, impossible worlds, regular division of plans and the problem of drawing tri-dimensional on a bi-dimensional plane. For him drawing was an illusion: it could suggest three dimensions when there were really only two. It was nothing but trompe l’oeil. The Renaissance artists had already explored this in their ceiling frescoes, like Andrea Pozzo or Michaelangelo. Eventually Escher would take up the perspective studies initiated in the 15th century and take them to new places.

Given the technical, even scientific basis of his work, it’s no wonder that the first people to be interest in Escher’s work were, not art critics, but people from the hard sciences: mathematicians (Ernst was a math teacher), physicians and crystallographers. There were science people in the family too: his brother, George, was a professor of Geology and had even written a treatise on mineralogy and crystallography. But Escher didn’t know anything about science and his interests and pursuits were mostly intuitive. According to Ernst, once a professor of mathematics invited him to attend one of his classes; Escher couldn’t follow it at all. He had tried to read books on mathematics to better understand what he was doing but he couldn’t get past the abstract verbiage. He was only interested in the point of intersection between an idea and its concreteness, that is, something that he could give form to.

Escher did not care about modern art and did not follow avant-garde movements. When art critics, trained in the history of art, tried to fit him in the context of Western art, they were at a loss to understand him. He had created his own tradition, and it was going to end with him too since he didn’t have pupils or students. Circa 1937 pictorial art stopped interesting him and he began to explore concepts like mathematical structures, regularity, continuity, infinity, symmetry and geometry. He was the opposite of the Surrealists – even though one of the few modern artists he liked was Rene Magritte – in that he did not seek the irrational, the unconscious or the oneiric in his work. Like his contemporaries, to him the classic goal of Beauty no longer mattered. But unlike dada, the Expressionists, the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists, he despised chance in his work. He also censored modern artists for their disregard for technique and their lack of talent. He meticulously studied and planned his work. For him, art was not about expressing the artist through it; art was a game of reason and craftsmanship. Ernst says that early critics had trouble appreciating this rational art because rationality is a big no-no in modern art. Escher wanted to astonish with his art, but not through the depiction of the bizarre and the weird, not by shocking, but by confronting the observer with the inherent laws of pictorial illustration. For that reason he didn’t even consider himself an artist but just someone who wanted to describe things rigorously and correctly. For him, what his work showed was everything there was to be seen. That way he also eliminated the art critic from his work. Throughout the 20th century the figure of the art critic had become, not somebody who understood the history and the techniques of art, but exegetes, diviners, interpreters of dreams, even creators in their own right in the sense that modern art criticism is little more than the art of persuasively saying something profound about disjointed blotches of paint on a canvas. It’s the concept of the Thinker and the Prover put to the test. It’s a game of apophenia. But with Escher they didn’t have such luck. He amused Ernst with letters he received from people, sharing with him the most far-fetched analyses of his work. If they wanted to believe them, he used to reply, they were free to do so but he wasn’t trying to hide anything in his work, on the contrary he wanted to bring to the fore the pictorial laws he was studying, to show that anyone could do what he did if they tried, and understood them.

The Alhambra Tiles
Before 1937 his art mostly focused on Italian landscapes. Ernst reasons that Escher’s change of setting – the Italian countryside – also led to an methodological change, moving inward to a more intellectual art. Ernst isolates several periods in his development as an artist. The first one, from 1937 to 1945, is what he calls the Metamorphosis period. Influenced by the tesselas he saw in the Alhambra, with their intricate patterns, Escher tried to find the rules that explained how the Muslim artists had achieved them. He began consulting science and mathematical books to understand the patterns, but he was a layman and found them incomprehensible. So he applied himself and arrived at the rules behind them through intuition, research and testing. He regretted that Muslim doctrines did not allow the use of figures but only abstract symbols. Preferring the concrete world to the abstract, since it was easier to visualize, he used animals in his panels to show the metamorphosis of one species into another.

The decade between 1946 and 1956 saw him studying three-point perspective, horizon lines, depth and vanishing points, and led him to the discovery of the zenith and nadir perspective points. Some things Renaissance artists like Leon Battista Alberti had discovered weren’t totally accurate and Escher corrected them in his work. It was the first time in centuries since anyone had contributed something new to the study of perspective. It sounds heady, I know, but Ernst does a great job explaining everything. Escher’s great work of this period is Balcony.

As if seen through a distorting convex mirror

Depending on you look at it, the vanishing point may be at the zenith or the nadir

In 1956 he entered his final creative period, subordinated to the representation of infinity. He used this concept in different ways, trying to perfect it each new time until he expressed his idea precisely, indifferent to the aesthetic beauty he sometimes sacrificed. More than one Ernst remarked to Escher that he could change some details to make the work prettier. Escher refused because that had nothing to do with what he wanted to transmit. That was true discipline

Ernst considered the Art Gallery Escher's masterpiece
This is a brief summary of Bruno Ernst’s excellent book on M.C. Escher, an amazing artist. For anyone interested in the singular artist that Escher was, I recommend getting this book. Also, for those who want to know more about Escher's art without reading this book, there's always this fine resource.


  1. What an unexpected pleasure to find M.C. Escher here on St. Orberose. Such an interesting figure - kind of a Renaissance artist of the 20th century.

    I found a coffee table book of Escher's work when I was about nine years old and forked over all my savings to buy it. For years I was obsessed. I spent months and months trying to imitate the tesselations and points of perspective. Eventually, my favorite works were the landscapes, in which I traveled for hours at a time. When Croat forces destroyed the ancient bridge at Mostar, my first thought was of an Escher illustration of a bridge I'd associated with that at Mostar, and the sense of loss was correspondingly amplified.

    1. Seraillon, thanks for your reply. A Renaissance artist is an apt compliment, in the sense that Escher seemed to reject quite a lot of what had become common in 20th century art; his return to technique, pictorial figures, studies of perspective, self-effacement from the art and absolute control, without leaving anything to chance, make him the opposite of great artists like Duchamp, Pollock, Bacon and Warhol.

  2. I do not know much about this type of art but I have always liked Escher.

    Very interesting point how mathematicians and scientists were the ones first drawn to his work. Even before I was as generally interested in the humanities as I am now, and was more interested in science I was intrigued by these works, so I can kind of understand that.

    Thanks for the great introduction to Escher's biography.

    1. Brian, thanks. Like Ernst argues, art critics were not prepared to understand what Escher was doing, they lacked the conceptual framework. To me there's not a lot to understand, so much as to marvel at his expertise and technique.