M.C. Escher – Stretching Reality (more thoughts)

I’ll be honest, I’d not done much thinking about this chap; apart from to admire his drawing and mathematical ability. But Kate Shrewsday’s post for Sidey’s Weekend Challenge on Structure got me thinking. You see Kate mentioned that Escher had left Italy when the Fascists tried to get his son to dress up in their uniform and in our subsequent “chat” we both wondered how he would have survived under the Nazis. But survive he did, because he didn’t die until 1972. Survival is one thing…

But did he flourish?

On went the thinking cap…

Apologies for any recap on Kate’s blog but briefly: Escher was born in 1898 in Leeuwarden, capital of the Dutch province of Frieslan. He didn’t do very well in school; the only thing he was good at was Art and carpentry (oh and Music.) He went to Haarlam to study architecture but changed his major to graphic design on the advice of S. Jessurun de Mesquita.

In 1922/3 he moved to Italy, met his wife, Jetta, and they were married in 1924. He left Italy to escape the Fascists; lived briefly in Switzerland and Belgium and when the Nazis invaded Belgium returned to Holland in 1941, living and working in Baarn.

Loving history, as I do, you can see what piqued my interest. How did a man, who was prepared to stand up to the Fascists and leave Italy because he disagreed with the Regime, survive under the yoke of Nazi domination?



Now this is where it gets difficult – and while the Web is a wonderful thing; as a research tool it’s limiting. As always you type in your search term and you takes your pick. But being an historian of the old school I know better than to take the first website and only the first website. I can see why the kids do though; because with Escher the contradictions and omissions are fascinating.

Time to examine the evidence. There is consensus that Escher was enigmatic. But so far, the period 1939 -45 is either “a time where he found it difficult to focus” or a “time which proved one of his most creative.” Great.

I can see this is time for the deerstalker and pipe…

The period 1937- 45 is apparently the Period of Metamorphosis – and if you look at the dates of publication of his major  works during this period,  “Metamorphosis I” (1937), “Day and Night” (1938), Sky and Water1&2  (1938), Metamorphosis ii (1939/40)  Reptiles (1943) “Doric Columns” (1945) , “Magic Mirror” (1946), not a lot of drawings are published thus seeming to back up theory 1.

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But no. Not really.

Yes, there are less published works than in the previous and subsequent decades but  what is missed with such a broad and sweeping statement (that is number 1) is the fact that this period saw the change from 2D to 3D work. And that’s a big jump. In historical terms, it’s a jump out of the Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment.

Ok; so he might not have published very much – but what was he up to?

Now this is where it gets interesting…

Because according to some this period was where his most creative work quietly flourished…


The answer is simple… he was researching! Researching and writing…

Not for publication, for his own personal use, to help him become a better visionary artist.

The notebook: Regular Division of the plane with Asymmetric congruent Polygons – which he worked on in 1941 and revised in subsequent years – did more than improve his artistic skills; its existence proves that Escher was one of the foremost research mathematicians of his generation. You see not only was he categorising all possible combinations of colour, shape and symmetrical properties to help his art, he was ( unknowingly) studying crystallography: “years in advance of any professional mathematician.” (http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Escher.html)

Yet, does this mean that there is no justification  to the statement that he lacked focus during this period?

Well actually… no. A final, telling, point and the object of my next bit of research: in 1944, the Nazis arrested S. Jessurun de Mesquita Escher’s mentor and teacher. Mesquita and his family were transported to  Auschwitz. They did not return.