An “Ordinary Dad”

Photos : Courtesy George Escher, 2013

It wasn’t until “very, very late in life,” that George Escher realized his dad—the internationally acclaimed artist M.C. Escher—might be doing “something unusual.”

“He’s just your father, right? A father is the most well-known and totally common person that you know. There is nothing special about him,” says George in a broad accent that still speaks to his Dutch roots.

“In hindsight you realize it was kind of an unusual youth and that he was an unusual person. He was not like everybody else’s father. It took a while to realize that. It was only after I left Holland, really, that it slowly dawned on me that he was probably quite special.”

M.C. Escher’s intricate prints, woodcuts and lithographs challenge gravity, play with perspective, and defy logic. He has become one of the world’s most recognized artists, with fans ranging from the hippie movement—to which son George gives credit for discovering his father’s work in the 1960s—to mathematicians, engineers and, now, other artists.

“He wasn’t accepted by the art world, because he didn’t consider himself to be an artist. He thought of himself as a woodcutter,” George says. “But the fact remains that he is the only one, ever I think, who did this kind of work: fitting together regular patterns and fantasies of distorted worlds with various gravities. He just couldn’t stay off it. It was a mania. Yes, he called it a mania himself.”

George—Escher’s eldest son—is now 86 and living in Stittsville, Ontario, just west of Ottawa, in a tidy suburban home. The family’s collection of original Eschers have been donated to the National Gallery of Canada to form one of the world’s most comprehensive holdings of Escher’s work.

In 1983, Brian Stewart, the National Gallery’s Librarian-Archivist in the Department of Prints and Drawings wrote:

Escher’s connections with Canada were strong. His son George, the donor of this gift, and his wife have lived in Canada since 1958. Escher himself visited Canada to lecture in 1960, and again in 1964 when the visit was cut short by illness. It was, as well, a Canadian mathematician, H.M.S. Coxeter (University of Toronto) whose writings inspired Escher to do a series of prints based on what he called the “Coxeter system” and several of which are included in this gift: Sphere Surface with Fish, Circle Limit II, Circle Limit III.

George remembers the father behind the artist as “a very quiet man,” but one who could also be playful with him and with his two younger brothers Arthur and Jan, walking and exploring the streets of Rome where the family temporarily lived.

I quite liked being with him. But work came first. Definitely. And that led to Mom leaving him toward the end of his life, because she just couldn’t stand always being second place.”

Indeed, George recalls as a toddler hanging over his father’s shoulder or stretching on tiptoe, trying to peek at what could possibly be demanding so much of his father’s time.

Photos: Courtesy George Escher, 2013

“He was always working away, drawing, cutting wood. I remember I did not like his worktable, because I could not see what he was doing.”

His father was also extremely disciplined about sticking to a daily work routine.

“There were times when he was designing something which required a fair amount of thought, or puzzling, that we had to be very quiet. He didn’t even want anyone to walk in front of his garden window and look inside to see what he was doing. This was his job.” Although George says his father was “lucky that he had a wealthy mother. His father was not poor—he was an engineer—but the wealth came from his mother. That support allowed him to do what he wanted. He wasn’t bothered by not selling anything.”

George moved to Canada in 1958 to work as an engineer. Brother Arthur lives in France, and Jan, the youngest, lives in Switzerland. Both are geologists.

“Father tried to push us a little bit, but not very hard. He let us go our own way.”

While George is quick to deny he has any artistic talent, he does admit to sharing certain tendencies with his father. He just couldn’t resist, for example, scrutinizing M.C. Escher’s intricate towers, or counting the tiny bricks in staircases to see if they could be built—then even starting to build one.

“It’s quite possible to make, but it’s a hell of a job,” he says, referring to Staircase, 1951. “The stairways crisscross over, and they work out if you count blocks on the walls. The tiles more or less correspond to each other, and the whole thing fits together. He always made things work. He went away a little bit from the normal view of things, but all the prints he made had a reason and they were easy to see—if you were used to it.”

George has frequently given lectures on his father’s work, mostly to math teachers.

“Artists are interested in his workmanship, but few artists could understand his thinking,” he says. “Although mathematicians couldn’t understand how he could do what he could without understanding math. I guess, myself, that he was a failed mathematician. Instead of what mathematicians do normally—write formulae on paper—he couldn’t do that, so he translated it into a language he understood and that the mathematicians understood very well.”

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