Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. M. C. Escher, a rare gift of apples, the Nazis and the almost lost genius of his friend the teacher.

Early February 1944. 
Watergraafsmeer near Amsterdam. Nazi occupied Holland. 

Today Escher has travelled 30 kilometres from his home in Baarn to to see the De Mesquita family of Samuel his old art teacher, his wife Elizabeth and their son Jaap at their home on Linnaeuskade 24 in Watergraafsmeer.

It’s hard for Escher to easily blend with the other dark figures as he walks these streets. Tall and lanky thin with a hawkish beak of a nose, he could easily be taken for a Jew but his papers will say otherwise. His side parted hair is high and wavy. His long angular face is made longer and more bird-like by the full beard on his chin below a small handlebar moustache. The red, white and black of the swastika banners they tied taut after the 1940 invasion sag limply now across the ancient grey streets and above empty shop windows. Here and there stand groups of German soldiers, always groups of them. Yheir fists clench the straps of the guns ready on their backs. Their hot breath steams in the winter air. Even his small deepset eyes resent them. More than twenty years after today he’ll “still have the greatest difficulty with the Krauts.”

At home in his studio sit the hundreds of sketches, drawings, woodcuts and prints he’s been producing during the war. Impossible mind-bending imagery of worlds where day becomes night, staircases never end, perspectives that manage somehow to look both up and down at once.

Before this war Escher travelled to to Spain and the 14th century Islamic palace at Alambra, the Mosque at Cordoba and other Muslim sites. The lavish tile work adorning the Moorish architecture, its precise symmetry combined with sumptuous use of colour spoke to him in ways that fired a radical new direction in his work. Alone and locked away from his family he’s feverishly developing a series based on clinical theories he describes as “mental imagery”. He’s producing countless of these new drawings, intricately carved woodcut blocks and prints of irregular shapes, patchworks of fish, birds, frogs, horses, all locked together, like the Spanish tiles, flattened and interlocking in rhythmic draughtsman-like precision, based on a principle he calls “Regular Division of the Plane”.

“Order,” Escher believes, “is repetition of units. Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm.”

Escher has brought apples for his 68 year old teacher, friend and mentor. A thoughtful and rare luxury in a time the Dutch will remember as “the famine winter”. Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, a Sephardic Jew is in poor health. Since the German invasion four years ago and the anti-Jewish measures that came with it, he’s led a solitary life in the small Portuguese Jewish enclave. He still produces the “sensitivity” works he’d drawn all his career, filling endless sketchbooks he uses like diaries full with sketchy quickly rendered images of strange quasi human beings. Dark images that speak of deeply unconscious inner tension and conflict. Many of Escher’s Jewish friends have been killed but de Mesquita hasn’t gone into hiding. He says the Germans have always believed the Portuguese Jews belonged to the elite. Escher had “tried so hard to convince him.”  but, “No. He was protected he said. Why Should he hide?”

Mijn zoon Jaap. (My son Jaap). Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita.

Samuel’s son Jaap was working hard on the Germans though, regularly going out to see them and telling them about their ancestors, even providing them with all kinds of genealogical records.

Before the Nazis and their restictions, Samuel loved to go regularly to the Artis Zoo (above) near his home. He’d visited for decades. As a teacher he’d take his students there, they’d all take their sketchbooks and so would Samuel whose hungry eyes missed nothing. His greatest interest was in the exotic animals from overseas, especially the birds and the hooved, horned animals. He sketched, etched and reduced the animals down to their very basic form in uniquely elegant lines both curved and angular. Owls and antelopes, cockatoos and gazelle, seabirds and bison, herons and doves. Images at once graceful and graphic, the essence of wild free animals with hints of their cages, their perches and their pens.

Escher walks up Linnaeuskad with the bag of apples in his hands, and when he reaches the De Mesquita house his heart sinks. The windows on the first floor of number 24 are all broken.

“You hadn’t heard?” the neighbours said, “The De Mesquitas have been taken away”.

In De Mesquitas’s empty studio, Escher finds “everything in a mess, everything on the floor”. Under the staircase lay a drawing with the impression of the cleats from a German soldiers boot.

Escher gathered up and took home some two hundred prints.

On January 31 1944, Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, his wife Elizabeth and son Jaap were taken by German troops to Auschwitz. None of them came back.

Two years later in 1946 Escher, with the help of some of Japp’s friends who’d also saved some of the work the Nazis left in the studio, organised a retrospective Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

“No matter what you do, you cannot forget such things. I cannot… Taken away in the middle of the night. And he could have been saved. I tried so hard to convince him.”  said Escher in an interview for Vrij Nederland magazine in 1968, “They almost never left their home. Really terrible, you know, such sweet people, carried away like cattle to be butchered.”

Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita had another great lost gift. That of wisdom. He persuaded a young man named Escher to give up his architecture studies and persue a career as an artist. Without Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita we would have no M. C. Escher.

Escher kept for himself the sketch bearing the imprint of a German boot he found under his old teacher’s staircase.

He kept it with his drawing supplies for the rest of his life.

De Mesquita (1868-1944) was born into a circle of artistically inclined Portuguese Jews. His elder brother Joseph was a photographer. The sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa was his cousin and friend and became his brother-in-law. After a brief apprenticeship at an architecture firm, he studied decorative art.

Having initially enrolled to study painting, he soon switched to other, sometimes highly experimental techniques. In the 1890s, for example, he produced sgraffito drawings, in which the image was created by incising white lines in a background of black chalk. It was during the same period that he produced his first etchings and woodcuts. Around 1900, he decided on a career as a decorative artist: he produced batiks and block-printed fabrics, which were sold by the Amsterdam interior design stores Binnenhuis and De Woning. He combined these activities with teaching at the School of Architecture and Ornamental Design in Haarlem.

Four years later he started once again to produce autonomous works of art: initially delicate water colour drawings; later woodcuts and etchings. The animals at Artis Zoo near his home, which he frequently visited with his pupils, became a recurrent theme in his work, but he also produced portraits, figure studies and pictures of exotic plants and flowers. His work is characterised by its serene simplicity and concentration on the main form. His work was radically different from that of any of his contemporaries.

Jessurun de Mesquita’s oeuvre also encompasses a distinct category of ‘Sensitivist’ works, unique drawings which he from the start of his artistic career right through to very shortly before he was taken away. He wrote that they were created during “time out” from his main activities. In the final years of his life however, after the German occupation and his own poor health forced him to lead a solitary life, countless drawings of this kind were all he produced.

November 2018.

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