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From frame to cutout

Escher’s work is known for such things as his optical illusions and his playing with perspective. He had an aptitude for rendering day-to-day subjects unfamiliar by means of the viewpoint he took or the cutout he made. The ideal nourishment for this was photography, which Escher took up when he was 15 years old.

Last month I showed how photography played a role in Escher’s depiction of landscapes; this month we will be looking at the influence from an entirely different perspective. Literally.

Artist’s eye…

Sketches, woodcuts and lithographs take time, planning and consideration. Photography is much quicker, taking a fraction of a second. Making photography the ideal playing field. It is more frivolous and swift, the medium for experimentation. Unsurprisingly, then, Escher enjoyed experimenting with photography during his youth. Test shots involving contrasts between light and shade, big and small, perspective – Escher tried everything. These experiments nurtured Escher’s eye as an artist. The eye that would make him great. That eye, that cutout by means of which he elevated the everyday to the status of art.

Photo album 1913
Photo album 1913

Escher had this proclivity from a young age. Just how young is something you can see clearly in the exhibition Escher, close up. In his first album, from 1913, composed of photos mainly taken on a holiday in France, this tendency on the part of a 15-year-old Escher to create unusual cutouts is already evident. The seed has been planted.

Photo album 1915-1918
M.C. Escher, Young Thrush, linoleum cut, 1917

A bird in the hand

In Escher’s second photo album, brimming with photos taken between 1915 and 1918, I found something rather unique. On the photo of a thrush, Escher had drawn on a little frame in pencil lines. The ephemeral nature of the bird, captured in a photo, framed in graphite. The photo turns out to form the basis of the linoleum cut Young Thrush (1917). I subsequently found, from the same period, a photo of a boy, around which Escher had drawn a box too, and in which I also recognized the early print Head of a child by Escher.
And then what happened? There was no turning back. The idea for this exhibition was born.

Portrait of a child, 1916
M.C. Escher, Head of a child, linoleum cut in green, 1916

No, darling, just go and do something for yourself

Take a famous work such as Marseille. When he visited the romantic port city on the Côte d’Azur with his wife in 1936, he didn’t produce any sketches of his love by candlelight. No hasty etchings of mischievous glances in cramped hotel rooms. No idyllic scenes on the waterline. Not at all. His visit to the harbour city yielded a single work: the Notre-Dame de la Garde through the taut lines of the Pont Transbordeur. What Marseille mainly enticed him to do, was making an out of the ordinary print, from an out of the ordinary point of view.

Marseille, photo album 1936
M.C. Escher, Marseille, wood engraving, December 1936

Inspiration behind the lens

Contours, croppings, strong contrasts – the print Marseille provides a nigh on photographic picture of the city. And that’s unsurprising, as Escher also took photos from this perspective. The pictures are strikingly similar to the print he ultimately produced. He produced the print from the drawing, getting inspiration for the cutout behind the lens.


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