Con­nect­ing with Escher

Leeuwar­den in Fries­land, a province in the north of the Nether­lands, is Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture for 2018, which makes it a per­fect time to fo­cus on the city. What many might not know is that Leeuwar­den was home to one of the world's most fa­mous artist

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When M.C. Escher was a child he liked to play a game. He would take two to­tally un­re­lated sub­jects and try to cre­ate a log­i­cal con­nec­tion. For ex­am­ple, how would you con­nect a rose to a train, or a duck to a ham­mer? This year, his home­town of Leeuwar­den holds the ti­tle of the Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture and is cel­e­brat­ing its her­itage and its fa­mous res­i­dents like Escher. Yet, in real­ity, the artist barely lived here af­ter he was five. But what would hap­pen if we played his game and took men­tal leaps to dis­cover the hid­den links, how­ever ob­scure, be­tween Leeuwar­den and M.C. Escher?

Escher’s story be­gins not only in Leeuwar­den, but also in a palace. He was born on 17 June 1898 in the for­mer royal res­i­dence of Maria Louise van Hessen-Kas­sel (1688-1765), Princess con­sort of Or­ange. The palace, now the Princesse­hof Na­tional Mu­seum of Ce­ram­ics, had by this time been sep­a­rated into apart­ments of which the mid­dle one be­longed to Escher’s fa­ther, Ge­orge Arnold. On the cusp of the 20th cen­tury, Leeuwar­den was a peace­ful city. The canals were packed with boats

bear­ing goods from other cities, fac­to­ries churned out dairy and agri­cul­tural prod­ucts, and horses and oxen were traded at the cat­tle mar­ket. Dur­ing the hot sum­mers, many of Leeuwar­den’s elite left the city due to the stench of the canals. Ge­orge Arnold Escher also moved when cir­cum­stances changed; his oc­cu­pa­tion as a hy­dro-me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer dic­tated where he and his fam­ily lived. In 1903, he took his wife Sara and his five sons, of which Mau­rits was the youngest, and left for Arn­hem around 85 miles south. Un­like Leeuwar­den’s elite, the Esch­ers would never re­turn.

This is where Escher’s re­la­tion­ship with the province of Fries­land might seem to end. At the Fries Mu­seum in Leeuwar­den, their cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion Escher’s Jour­ney makes it very clear that it was Escher’s trav­els out­side of the Nether­lands that moulded him sig­nif­i­cantly as an artist. The coun­try’s sig­na­ture flat hori­zon, while a con­ve­nience for Dutch cy­clists, seemed re­stric­tive to him. But could a par­al­lel be made be­tween Escher and the Dutch land­scape, al­beit an un­con­scious one? Could we play Escher’s child­hood as­so­ci­a­tion game and find a con­nec­tion?

Escher cre­ated his first graphic work in 1916, a linocut print of his fa­ther. This tech­nique in­volves carv­ing into linoleum with a v-shaped chisel or sharp knife. The parts you do not carve are cov­ered in ink and will show up on pa­per when pressed, while the in­dents will ap­pear white. Even­tu­ally he pro­gressed to wood­cut print­ing, which is a sim­i­lar process. This process has com­par­isons with the ge­og­ra­phy of his home coun­try. With­out en­gi­neer­ing feats like dams, canals and flood­gates, cities like Am­s­ter­dam could be un­der­wa­ter. A graphic artist will carve into a piece of linoleum or wood to dic­tate where ink will show on the page, like one would dig a canal to dic­tate what land stays dry and pros­pers. Both pro­cesses are ways in which carv­ing into a flat sur­face will cre­ate a place, or an idea, that could not be there be­fore. Oth­er­wise they will dis­ap­pear, ei­ther un­der­wa­ter or into a black inky abyss.


Escher trav­elled reg­u­larly from the Nether­lands af­ter study­ing at the School for Ar­chi­tec­ture and Dec­o­ra­tive Arts in Haar­lem un­der his men­tor Sa­muel Jes­su­run de Mesquita. He was a keen

ex­plorer, a yearn­ing shared by other for­mer Leeuwar­den res­i­dents. Me­tal­smith Dirk van Erp (1862-1933) jour­neyed to Alaska dur­ing the Klondike Gold Rush to find his for­tune. When he did not strike gold, he moved to Cal­i­for­nia to mas­ter a less pre­cious metal: cop­per. Joachim van Plet­ten­berg (1739-1793), Gover­nor of the Cape of Good Hope, a gov­er­norate of the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany, made voy­ages to de­ter­mine the bor­ders of the Cape Colony and sup­ported the ex­plo­ration of south­ern Africa. Escher never trav­elled this far, but in 1922 he boarded a ves­sel and ended up in Rome the fol­low­ing year.

If Escher were to see Leeuwar­den to­day, he would dis­cover a city brim­ming with di­ver­sity. In a pop­u­la­tion of over 108,000, over 28 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties re­side here and a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages are spo­ken in­clud­ing the Frisian di­alect. Judith Spi­jksma, cu­ra­tor of the Escher’s

Jour­ney ex­hi­bi­tion, thinks that Escher did not feel an affin­ity with the Frisian cul­ture. He in­stead im­mersed him­self in Italy and Cor­sica, and took long jour­neys to study the coun­try­side through draw­ings and pho­tog­ra­phy and recre­ated it in prints and lith­o­graphs.

There is a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion of the artist's work at 'Escher in Het Paleis' in The Hague.

Escher’s change was not as out­wardly provoca­tive as Mata Hari. To sur­vive as an artist, he de­cided to ex­plore men­tal im­agery af­ter be­hold­ing the mo­saics of the Moor­ish palace of Alhambra and the Mezquita in Cór­doba. “He started to look more in­ward at how the mind works and how per­cep­tion works"

Their com­par­a­tive stud­ies be­tween his prints and pho­tos of the Ital­ian land­scape bear no­tice­able dif­fer­ences. For ex­am­ple, in his wood­cut of

Boni­fa­cio, Cor­sica (1928), the cur­va­ture of the cliff has been far more ex­ag­ger­ated in the print to di­rect the viewer’s gaze up­wards. In the litho­graph

Cas­trovalva, Abruzzi (1930), Escher ex­ag­ger­ated the steep­ness of the hill­side. In The Bridge (1930), Escher stated that this scene was a fan­tasy built up from el­e­ments he wit­nessed in na­ture. It seems he wanted to evoke his ex­pe­ri­ence and mem­ory of Italy and France rather than sim­ply recre­at­ing it.

A sim­i­lar ap­proach was made by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), a painter of scenes of the Ro­man Em­pire who spent his youth in Leeuwar­den. Alma-Tadema vis­ited the an­cient ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum and, like Escher, took pho­tos as ref­er­ences for his work.

Some an­cient items he dis­cov­ered in his trav­els ap­peared in mul­ti­ple paint­ings, like a dec­o­ra­tive sil­ver jug that ap­peared in An Au­di­ence at

Agrippa’s (1875), A Bath (1879), A Silent Greet­ing (1889) and A Ded­i­ca­tion to Bac­chus (1889). His ex­quis­ite de­pic­tions of the Ro­man Em­pire formed the aes­thetic of many Hollywood films in­clud­ing

Ben-Hur, Cleopa­tra and Glad­i­a­tor. Escher’s work has also been used in fea­ture-length films like

Labyrinth and In­cep­tion.


Escher’s time in Italy bore many fruits, but even­tu­ally he was forced to leave as fas­cism be­came more preva­lent there. His piece Noc­tur­nal

Rome: Small Churches, Pi­azza Venezia (1934) was ex­hib­ited at the Dutch His­tor­i­cal In­sti­tute in Rome, yet not long af­ter its cre­ation Mus­solini ad­dressed a crowd from a bal­cony at the square Escher de­picted. This was a piv­otal time for Escher. He took his wife and chil­dren to Switzer­land, but found nowhere near the same in­spi­ra­tion in its snow-capped moun­tains. “When the land­scape did not in­ter­est him that much any­more, an im­por­tant source of in­spi­ra­tion was not avail­able any­more,” says Spi­jksma. “So, he needed some­thing new.”

On the Over de Kelders in Leeuwar­den there is a small statue of Mata Hari, one of the city’s most fa­mous res­i­dents. Af­ter a divorce from her un­happy mar­riage in 1902, Hari was left with­out the Dutch high-class con­nec­tions she had made and even­tu­ally gave away cus­tody of her child. Like Escher, Hari had to rein­vent her­self. She moved to Paris and be­came an im­mensely pop­u­lar en­ter­tainer and trans­formed ex­otic danc­ing into an art form. In many pho­tos of her, she is beau­ti­fully draped in jew­els and pearls.

Escher’s change was not as out­wardly provoca­tive as Mata Hari. To sur­vive as an artist, he

de­cided to ex­plore men­tal im­agery af­ter be­hold­ing the mo­saics of the Moor­ish palace of Alhambra and the Mezquita in Cór­doba. “He started to look more in­ward at how the mind works and how per­cep­tion works,” says Spi­jksma. A sim­i­lar tran­si­tion hap­pened to Leeuwar­den. For many cen­turies, Leeuwar­den was close enough to the Mid­dle Sea to trade with other coun­tries. But when the Mid­dle Sea silted up in the 13th cen­tury, Leeuwar­den lost its abil­ity to trade by sea and was forced to adapt and start trad­ing lo­cally. Ac­cord­ing to the His­torisch Cen­trum Leeuwar­den (HCL), the city be­came an im­por­tant trad­ing cen­tre of crafts for the sur­round­ing ar­eas.

Seam­less con­nec­tions

It was amongst the mo­saics of the Alhambra that Escher was in­spired to pur­sue tes­sel­la­tions in his work. A tes­sel­la­tion is a pat­tern made up of shapes that re­peat and join seam­lessly. Per­haps his most as­ton­ish­ing feat is Meta­mor­pho­sis II (1939-40), an al­most four-me­tre tes­sel­la­tion start­ing with a checker board that tran­si­tions to lizards, to bees, to fish, to birds, to the city of Atrani, to a chess board, and then back to a checker board. Where Escher had pre­vi­ously dab­bled in men­tal as­so­ci­a­tions as a child, through this wood­cut he proved that any num­ber of things, no mat­ter how far apart they may seem, can be vis­ually con­nected.

Within a short walk from the Princesse­hof Na­tional Mu­seum of Ce­ram­ics there is a mu­ral of Maria Louise van Hessen-Kas­sel and her hus­band John Wil­liam Friso along­side their ex­ten­sive fam­ily tree. Along the bot­tom are small por­traits of Euro­pean monar­chs, from Queen El­iz­a­beth II of Great Bri­tain to King Felipe VI of Spain. The pur­pose of the mu­ral is to il­lus­trate that, through a se­ries of ar­ranged mar­riages and un­for­tu­nate deaths, both Van Hessen-Kas­sel and Friso are the most com­mon re­cent an­ces­tors of every monarch in Europe. While Escher found a way to vis­ually morph lizards to bees, Leeuwar­den’s roy­alty man­aged to in­ter­twine them­selves with all the monar­chies of Europe.

In Escher’s tes­sel­la­tion Air and Wa­ter I (1938), black birds in a white sky tran­si­tion to white fish swim­ming in a black sea. The con­nec­tion be­tween wa­ter and air in Fries­land also in­spired Jaume Plensa’s re­cent foun­tain sculp­ture in Leeuwar­den out­side the train sta­tion. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the mist over the Frisian fields, the Span­ish artist cre­ated a mist ef­fect to shroud his mar­ble and resin heads of a boy and girl for the 11Foun­tains in­ter­na­tional art project.

At the Fries Mu­seum’s Phan­tom Limb ex­hi­bi­tion is Matthijs Mun­nik’s in­stal­la­tion Lu­mi­nal (2016). The ex­hi­bi­tion, be­gin­ning with Escher’s words: ‘I could not re­sist fool­ing around with our es­tab­lished cer­tain­ties’, ex­plores how we ex­pe­ri­ence real­ity and how our brain con­nects to what we see and hear.

For Lu­mi­nal, one steps into a smooth spher­i­cal room bathed in coloured lights to cre­ate the feel­ing of stand­ing in an in­fi­nite void. “To see depth, we need some­thing to fo­cus on. If our eyes can’t fo­cus on any­thing we can’t es­tab­lish what depth is. It’s a very sim­ple way in how our body is lim­ited and we can use that to cre­ate dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences of real­ity,” says Eelco van der Lin­gen, cu­ra­tor of the Phan­tom Limb ex­hi­bi­tion. In a sim­i­lar way to Lu­mi­nal, Escher’s Day and Night (1938) shows that the hu­man brain is un­able to per­ceive both back­grounds and fore­grounds at the same time. One can only ei­ther look at the black birds or the white birds; not both.

Strange struc­tures

For Escher, draw­ing was an il­lu­sion. In many of his prints he tried to over­come the flat­ness of the pa­per, like in his litho­graph Bal­cony (1945) where it looks like the Mal­tese coastal city is bulging out of the pa­per. “It must have been an in­cred­i­ble open­ing for him to know that on a flat plain you can do so much more than what is pos­si­ble in real­ity,” says Spi­jksma. On Leeuwar­den’s flat hori­zon, the early in­hab­i­tants had no canals or dams to pro­tect them from the wa­ter. In­stead, the orig­i­nal settlers built three ar­ti­fi­cial hills, or ter­pen, to keep them­selves dry.

The first mound, called Olde­hove, was built around 100 CE and grad­u­ally grew in size to ac­com­mo­date a large farm. There is no ev­i­dence that Escher was in­spired by his home­town’s found­ing when he cre­ated Bal­cony, but there is un­doubt­edly a com­mon goal to con­quer flat­ness whether that be of the land or a sheet of pa­per. A mod­ern ex­am­ple in Leeuwar­den is the Slauer­hoff­brug, a bas­cule bridge that lifts a 2,500-square-feet sec­tion of road into the air to al­low traf­fic of the Har­linger Vaart River to pass. Raised and low­ered ten times a day, the un­der­side of the dis­sected sec­tion of bridge has been painted

blue and yel­low like the city’s flag. It is pos­si­bly the only bridge in the world to move the road in such a way and, like Escher’s prints, it ma­nip­u­lates a struc­ture in a way that seems im­prob­a­ble.

Cre­at­ing such struc­tures re­quires an ad­vanced un­der­stand­ing of perspective, some­thing Escher ex­per­i­mented with great com­plex­ity in his ar­chi­tec­tural prints. Like the pi­o­neers of the Cu­bist move­ment, Escher’s litho­graph Rel­a­tiv­ity (1953) plays with si­mul­ta­ne­ous per­spec­tives. A mul­ti­tude of stairs in­ter­twine up­side down and right-side up seem­ingly in one room as face­less fig­ures walk up and down the steps, some de­fy­ing grav­ity. Escher took his ar­chi­tec­ture stud­ies and cre­ated im­pos­si­ble struc­tures in his prints, such as Belvedere (1958), Wa­ter­fall (1961) and

As­cend­ing and De­scend­ing (1960). The lat­ter shows a square staircase atop a tower that a line of fig­ures ap­pear to be climb­ing con­tin­u­ously. By ma­nip­u­lat­ing perspective, Escher has cre­ated a struc­ture that seems im­pos­si­ble. Yet Leeuwar­den has its own seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble tower: the Olde­hove. The 39-me­tre-high tower leans to one side by two me­tres and is slightly curved from ar­chi­tect Cor­nelis Fred­eriks’ at­tempts to cor­rect it. Yet this sym­bolic tower has been stand­ing since con­struc­tion was aban­doned in 1533.

Escher de­scribed his As­cend­ing and De­scend­ing staircase as a ‘rather sad, pes­simistic sub­ject, as well as be­ing very pro­found and ab­surd’ be­cause climb­ing it seems to get the fig­ures nowhere. Yet Leeuwar­den em­braces the im­per­fect Olde­hove, which has a glass view­ing plat­form, with a great sense of pride. This echoes their Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture

2018 mantra of ‘Dare to be Dif­fer­ent’, no doubt some­thing an artist who chal­lenged our idea of real­ity would also cel­e­brate.

Cre­ative in­spi­ra­tion

There are many more links to be made be­tween M.C. Escher and Leeuwar­den, some jus­ti­fi­able, oth­ers ob­scure. We could link Escher’s litho­graph

Draw­ing Hands (1948) with Leeuwar­den res­i­dent Jeron­imus Cor­nelisz, who was the ring­leader of one of the blood­i­est mu­tinies in his­tory and had both his hands cut off be­fore be­ing hanged for his crimes. De­spite the con­nec­tions we make, it can­not change the real­ity that Escher seemed to have few di­rect con­nec­tions with his home­town as an adult.

But Leeuwar­den does not seem to view this as a tragedy, and the city is tak­ing steps to in­vest in tal­ent de­vel­op­ment and cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion. In other words, they want to in­spire the lo­cal youth and en­cour­age cre­ative res­i­dents to stay. Or­gan­i­sa­tion, We The North, for ex­am­ple, is try­ing to im­prove cul­tural poli­cies by the Dutch gov­ern­ment with col­lab­o­ra­tion from mul­ti­ple prov­inces in­clud­ing Fries­land. As Deputy Mayor of Leeuwar­den Sjo­erd Feitsma ex­plains, to make a city ex­tra spe­cial you need to cre­ate a 'buzz' and have peo­ple, like artists, ca­pa­ble of look­ing at their sur­round­ings in a dif­fer­ent way.

One can only guess at what kind of artist Escher would have been had he stayed in the Nether­lands, or even Fries­land. For now, his legacy serves his home­town by help­ing it shine as a bea­con of cul­ture in Europe. The dis­cussed links be­tween his life and work and Leeuwar­den are fas­ci­nat­ing and as­ton­ish­ing when dis­cov­ered, de­spite the fact that they are lim­ited. But the ben­e­fits of his as­so­ci­a­tion as a tool for in­spir­ing the lo­cals and cre­atives could be huge for this small city. It has to be, be­cause when asked what hap­pens when a place loses its cre­ative com­mu­nity, Feitsma sim­ply re­sponds: “Death”.

Escher's Jour­ney is on at The Fries Mu­seum, Leeuwar­den, un­til 28 Oc­to­ber and Phan­tom Limb un­til 6 Jan­uary 2019. For more in­for­ma­tion see www.fries­mu­

For more in­for­ma­tion about events around Leeuwar­den as Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture see www.fries­­ro­pean­cap­i­tal-of-cul­ture

Above: M.C. Escher’s Day and Night (1938) © The M.C. Escher Com­pany, B.V. Right, top to bot­tom: The Fries Mu­seum; The Princesse­hof Na­tional Mu­seum of Ce­ram­ics; M.C. Escher’s wood­cut en­grav­ing Noc­tur­nal Rome: Small Churches, Pi­azza Venezia (1934) © The M.C. Escher Com­pany, B.V.

Above, right: Mata Hari in Fries Mu­seum © NBTC

Above, left: M.C. Escher’sCas­trovalva (1930) © The M.C. Escher Com­pany, B.V.

Above: Leeuwar­den, joint Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture 2018

Above: Leeuwar­den at night. Im­age: © NBTC

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