Stepping Stones: Expanding the Otherworldly Universe of M.C. Escher
“The most down-to-earth man” is how Giorgio (George) Escher (1926–2018), first-born child of the universally popular graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898–1972), described his father. Yet, Escher’s art indicates a labyrinthian mind, extraordinary skill, and a complex understanding of the world. With over 230 works by M.C. Escher, the National Gallery of Canada boasts one of the three largest public holdings of prints by the Dutch artist, thanks to the gifts made over the course of more than 30 years by his son George, an aeronautical engineer who moved to Canada in 1958. His generous, final donation includes some of the rarest works by his father.
The woodcut Self-Portrait in a Chair of 1920, now the earliest work by Escher in the Gallery's collection, was created while the artist, aged 22, was studying at the Haarlem School for Architecture and Decorative Arts between 1919 and 1922. There, under the wing of Dutch graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita (1868–1944), Escher learned the art of woodcutting, whereas until then he had produced mostly linocuts. Self-Portrait in a Chair departs from the earlier head self-portraits of 1917–19 and shows him full-length for the first time. The low viewpoint tells us that the artist must have placed a mirror at an angle on the ground in order to see and draw himself as he sat in an armchair in a livingroom décor. The zigzagging legs, the draping of the sleeve, and the line patterns in the furniture and the wall pictures all foreshadow the bold contours and strong graphic compositions of his alluring Italian landscapes created between 1923 and 1935.
The woodcut Sclafani displays these very characteristics. Situated around 50 km southeast of Palermo on the island of Sicily, the picturesque old castle of Sclafani built atop a rocky spur would have enchanted the adventurous Escher. Having moved to Rome in 1923, the artist spent the warm seasons drawing from life in the most remote and remarkable southern Italian landscapes, while the winters he stayed in his Roman studio producing woodcuts, wood engravings and lithographs based on these summer sketches. He visited Sicily in the summer of 1932 and rendered the print Sclafani the following April. Like many of his Italian landscape prints, it signals his interest in unusual viewpoints and mesmerizing geology – principles that would form the basis of many of the fantastical and mathematical compositions of the second part of his career.
A month later, Escher departed on a second visit to Corsica, having first explored the island in 1928. On 13 May 1933, he captured in conté crayons the Gallery's view of the Corsican Calanques located in Piana, halfway between Ajaccio and Calvi in the Gulf of Porto. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Calanques de Piana are a distinct Mediterranean geological formation of the type that fascinated Escher during his time in Italy. He does not appear to have made a print from the landscape sketch, focusing rather on the town of Calvi.
When Escher relocated his family to Switzerland in 1935 to escape Fascism, he was left surprisingly uninspired by the Swiss landscape, withdrawing instead into the inner fictional world epitomized by his celebrated lithograph Relativity of 1953. This gravity-defying structure of stairways has had a long-lasting impact on the visual imaginary of the 20th and 21st centuries, including on well-known scenes in films, such as Labyrinth (1986), Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014) and the Harry Potter series (2001–11).
Relativity finds its precursor in House of Stairs, first printed in November of 1951. As a tall structure crisscrossed with stairs and doorways, the lithograph lent itself well to the wheel-shaped, unfolding creatures Escher designed earlier that month and baptized Wentelteefje (Dutch for French toast, wentel meaning “to turn over”). Forty-six of these critters are seen crawling through House of Stairs. Through ongoing self-reflection and constant re-thinking of his own inventions and his characteristic economy of means, Escher devised a way to triple the length of the print without re-drawing it on a longer lithographic stone or reprinting the existing stone three times on a longer sheet of paper. He simply took three of the prints from the original edition of forty, trimmed them and spliced them together to produce the singular House of Stairs II, which transports viewers into a whirling space both amusing and daunting at once. “The most down-to-earth man” certainly knew how to catapult the viewer into otherworldly universes.
Along with the rest of the Gallery’s impressive M.C. Escher collection, these rare and fine works donated by the artist’s son demonstrate, among other things, his sensitive draughtsmanship and incomparable printmaking skills, while also reinforcing his connection to Canada, which he visited on more than one occasion. Through its multiple exhibitions, two publications and archive holdings, the Gallery is honoured to contribute to the appreciation of this beloved 20th-century master.
For works by M.C. Escher at the National Gallery of Canada, see the Gallery's online collection. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.