M.C. Escher’s Letters to Canada, 1958–1972

The Escher house, Mahone Bay with Jetta, George, and M.C. Escher in the foreground, fall 1969

Having a family scattered over more than one continent is an experience to which many Canadians can relate, and, before the advent of email and Skype, writing letters was the way to stay in touch. “We are so happy with the health and beauty of our grand-daughter” is the kind of phrase that could occur in the correspondence of just about any family at any time. But how many grandfathers would also write the sentence: “it’s fun to read that in Norway, Japan, Chile, England, Germany, Italy, and the United States they all agree that my drawings will be useful in the teaching of crystallography”? 

The answer is artist M.C. Escher, whose letters to his eldest son George include both of these quotations. With his wife Corrie, George Escher emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada in 1958, and over the years he has donated to the National Gallery not only many of his father’s original prints, but also copies of the numerous letters he wrote. These copies have been placed in the Gallery’s Archives, and now, with permission from George and the M.C. Escher Foundation, 33 letters from of a total of over 300 have been selected for publication.

The dates of the letters range from 1958 to 1972—when M.C. Escher died, at the age of 73. There is insight, humour, affectionate anxiety about his family, and occasional grumpiness, especially about his health and the process of getting old. There is also evidence of the fame and success which his art attracted relatively late in life. He describes his experiences being invited to give a lecture in Cambridge (U.K.) in August 1960; being the subject of a major retrospective exhibition in The Hague in 1968; and having a book published about himself, The World of M.C. Escher, in 1971.

Of the many and various topics covered along the way, here is a brief selection:

On his art:

It is very sad, but it is a fact that I am starting to speak a language that very few can understand. It makes my loneliness so much greater. I don’t belong anywhere. Those mathematicians can be friendly and interested, and they nod in a benevolent way, but I am still a nonentity to them. And artists usually get annoyed.

On his sales:

Those Californians, especially the students at the university in Berkeley, are mad for my work. Two art dealers, one in San Francisco and one in Berkeley, are competing with each other to buy my entire supply. One of them came here and took 55 prints with him. Even though my prices are high for the average Dutchman, an American dealer does not think twice about paying $175–$300 for a print, which he will most likely sell for a profit of 100 per cent. There does not seem to be an end to it.

On one of his fans:

Received a ghastly woodcut from a lady in Far Hills, New Jersey, who teaches drawing—the first real “pupil” in the regular division of the plane. She fiddles around with angels. It bothers me.

On getting old:

The quiet craft of carving into the beautiful red-brown pear wood is just as satisfying as before, but now my inner peace is disturbed by worries that I did not have before. The feeling that I am way past half my life (no exaggeration) haunts me. In addition, I wonder whether I have taken on a job that is too tiring, that takes too long, and that I’ll be unable to finish because of illness or overwork.

On filmmaker Stanley Kubrick:

I received a phone call from New York from a co-worker of Stanley Kubrick’s or Kublik (ever heard of him? I haven’t), who is apparently a “famous” moviemaker. He asked for my assistance in producing a four-dimensional film! As it is not smart to refuse outright, I asked for a written explanation, which he is supposed to provide. He’ll be visiting me in July. It probably will not be to my taste, but we’ll see.

On novelist J.R.R Tolkien:

Have you ever heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of English literature, who wrote fantastic children’s stories, which he first read to his own children at bedtime and which later became well known? Arthur discovered a paperback by him, The Hobbit, and bought a copy for me as well. I enjoyed it so much that he gave me an even bulkier tale by the same author for my birthday. I read it slowly in the evening. I find these stories can’t be compared to any others I know; they relate adventures of imaginary creatures, their wars, and their crusades to kill a dragon. The book, whose existence I was not aware of, is in a class by itself and the unique creation of Mr. Tolkien. Some people—realists, who despise fantasy—are bored by it.

On art historian E.H. Gombrich:

I am very pleased with an article entitled “How to Read a Painting” (Adventures of the Mind), in the July 29, 1961, edition of the Saturday Evening Post. It was written by Professor E.H. Gombrich, Art Historian at the University of London. Following the introduction, in which he mentions many famous visual artists, he talks extensively about how one could look at my prints, showing three reproductions. Although he is somewhat critical of my work on aesthetic grounds, he is still moved by it because he goes on and on—more than three columns.

The letters have been compiled by Cyndie Campbell, Head of Collections in the Gallery’s Library and Archives. The publication includes colour illustrations of art by M.C. Escher mentioned in the text. This is the ninth in the series of Occasional Papers series published by the Library, and it is available for purchase from the Bookstore: Cyndie Campbell. M.C. Escher’s letters to Canada, 1958–1972. ISBN 978-0-88884-918-2

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