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Painters & Playful Children: Notes on the Art & Alchemy Exhibition

Posted on by Joyce Pijnenburg

Frank van Lamoen already devoted an article on this blog to the Art and Alchemy exhibition in Düsseldorf, a very fine exhibition which ran this past spring and summer of 2014. I would like to add another contribution on this blog focusing on items that impressed me particularly.

The first, historical, part of the exhibition covered the history of alchemy in practice and in art, but it also figured contemporary works of art. Lithographs made in 2004 by the art duo Mark Dion and Robert Williams, for instance, were flanked by a 3rd-century alchemical papyrus and a beautiful 16th-century version of the Ripley Scroll.

'Summum Bonum' tree of art and alchemy, by Williams and Dion.

‘Summum Bonum’ tree of art and alchemy, by Williams and Dion.

The duo was clearly inspired not only by alchemical literature, but also by the genre of Encyclopedianism, which was very popular among alchemists and esoteric philosophers in the 16th and 17th centuries. This genre embraced various styles of arts of memory, ‘pansophical’ books of universal learning and ‘panoptical’ emblems or posters. The lithographs by Dion and Williams feature the names of authors and ideas in the fields of esoteric, mystical, and alchemical learning, placed into a symbolic setting with trees or architectural structures and perhaps suggesting that such an assembly in and of itself might seem to have an instructive or even revelatory nature. Thus at a glance it would become possible to overview major authors of or ideas about the intricate relationships between microcosm and macrocosm, thus perhaps able to somehow ‘grasp’ or memorize them all together and instantaneously. Judging from comments in an online interview, however, it is unlikely that the artists had similar intentions as their encyclopedianist predecessors.

Some of Dion and Williams’ ‘alchemical’ lithographs can be found online and may have once puzzled commuters on the London tube, as they adorned the walls of the London underground. I would like to point out an early modern parallel to these posters: an early 17th-century ‘calendar’ owned by the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica with the revealing title “Perpetual natural magical calendar, encompassing the contemplation of very profound and secret things as well as all of Philosophical knowledge”, which Carlos Gilly established to have been composed by Johann Baptista Großschedel.

 The upper part of Grossschedel’s 'Calendarium'.

The upper part of Grossschedel’s ‘Calendarium’.

This poster was thought of as an emblem in which all knowledge of the universe was somehow condensed into a series of encompassing symbols. By merely contemplating the portrayed planetary energies – the seven powers which were thought to pervade the natural world – and the classes of worldly and heavenly things connected to them, the spectator in a certain way was considered able to know all things at once. If one were to make a contemporary analogue to such a ‘calendar’ it would be a necessarily quite large mindmap depicting, by means of compact icons, all of our knowledge of nature, from the subatomic level up to the furthest known galaxies, as well as all of the central ideas brought forth by human intellectual creativity. Such a map might be considered a key to unlocking a staggering amount of information and would certainly be an amazing and mindblowing thing to lay eyes on. That is also how an early modern viewer may have conceived of Großschedel’s calendar. Unlike most contemporary viewers, however, the early modern viewer would have attributed an inherent power and value to such an encompassing system because of its capacity of disclosing this enormous amount of information.

The selected items for the historical part of the exhibition amounted to an actually quite encyclopedic effect; it seems that no important aspect of the history of alchemy and its web of interpretation has been left out. The curators covered the varied history of this multifaceted art and science, from the time of composition of the previously mentioned 3rd-century ‘Leiden’ papyrus through the age of the scientific revolution (exhibited: an autograph manuscript recipe by the avid practicioner of alchemy, Sir Isaac Newton), up to the 18th century, when scientists and alchemists had finally come to the conclusion that the artificial production of gold and many other alchemical transformatory missions were simply not possible. Occasionally, the curators would appear to have stretched the evidence a little, perhaps to make alchemy seem even more ubiquitous in early modern culture. The mere appearance, for instance, in a sottobosco painting by Paolo Porpora of the colours red, white and black, hardly implies a reference to the alchemical stages nigredo, albedo and rubedo associated with these colours.

'Melancholia' by Dürer (1514).

‘Melancholia’ by Dürer (1514).

'Melancholia' by Cranach (1532)

‘Melancholia’ by Cranach (1532)

On the other hand, even though sometimes there the historical evidence was a little laboured, the exhibition also held considerable surprises. When, just before entering the museum, I learned that a work, or works, by Lucas Cranach the Elder would be on exhibit, I suspected it might be a painting from his series devoted to the theme of melancholy – not so much because the actual symbols portrayed in Cranach’s paintings of melancholy reminded me of alchemy, but merely by association with Albrecht Dürer’s well-known etching Melancholia. To my knowledge Dürer’s etching can hardly be called alchemical, but it does present elements from esoteric systems of thought. Melancholy had figured prominently in early modern literature since the 15th century, when the philosopher and physician Marsilio Ficino, based on melancholy’s association with the planet Saturn, had highlighted the intellectual aspects of the condition (previously explained mostly by the physical excess of black bile in the body). Dürer’s etching contains a magic square which may be devoted, through the influence of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, to Jupiter, the ‘jovial’ planet (Jove being an alternate appellation for this planet god), which Ficino had thought capable of driving out the dark moods and physical afflictions caused by melancholy. Rather than from alchemy, Dürer seems to have depicted elements from Ficino’s philosophy of life and perhaps from what was then called magia naturalis, natural magic. To link Lucas Cranach the Elder to the art of alchemy on the basis of a relationship to Dürer’s etching would be stretching the evidence.

As it turned out, the association with Dürer had been on the curators’ minds as well: Cranach’s painting was actually on display adjacent to the etching. My curiosity was roused. Had the curators found some clear link between Cranach and alchemy? It is true that Cranach had drawn on Dürer for the theme of his melancholia series: in the works of both artists a pensive, seated angel occupies the right corner of the composition; a globe figures prominently; darkness is portrayed, in quite different ways; a dog lies curled up on the left; and the angel seems half-occupied with a specific, though minute task. The presence of the theme of melancholy in a work of art from this period, as I said, might suggest, but certainly does not prove, some influence from the originally Ficinian ideas and natural magic that also informed alchemists. The description did not help much in explaining the presence of Cranach’s “Melancholy” in the context of the exhibition. The audioguide however (and, as I discovered later on, the exhibition catalogue), did provide an interesting suggestion. The curators propose that the playful children in this painting – and by extension, I would say, in all of Cranach’s depictions of melancholy – symbolize alchemy or an alchemical stage of transformation. This idea had suggested itself to them after comparing it to another, very small work from Cranach’s workshop, on exhibit in another part of the exhibition hall. This sketch was actually entitled An Allegory of Alchemy and it proved that Cranach, or at least someone working for him, had been interested in alchemy at some point (unfortunately the sketch is undated). Among the traditional and obvious alchemical symbolism in this little work, there was a child playing and a woman doing the laundry.

'Allegory of Alchemy' from Cranach’s workshop (first half 16th century).

‘Allegory of Alchemy’ from Cranach’s workshop (first half 16th century).

The theme of the child or children at play, the ludus puerorum, was a relatively common symbol for alchemy in the early modern period; and it often appeared together with the opus mulierum: a woman at work. Apparently both similitudes were employed to illustrate the ease (or perhaps, ‘flow’?) required for the accomplishment the ‘Great Work’ of transformation (see Pereira “Chemistry and Alchemy”, in: Medieval Latin, eds. Mantella & Riggs, 414). It is after all possible, then, that alchemy was on Cranach’s mind when he composed this particular “Melancholy” and all the others in the series. One cannot be sure. My intuition however is that Cranach’s portrayals of melancholy – like so many of his works – betray, more than an alchemical interest, what we might call a proto-psychological interest. In that case the playful boys may be a reference not specifically to alchemy but to any type of playful, creative or indeed jovial act capable of driving out the Saturnine demons of the dark.

The first part of the exhibition also hosted many Dutch and Flemish early modern paintings, including the Allegory of the Arts by Hendrik Goltzius, which is wholly about alchemy in its various shapes and portrays the painter himself in the guise of Mercury. This, of course, after the legendary father of alchemy, Mercurius/Hermes Trismegistus, and probably also a reference to the substance mercury, which was central to the alchemical ‘Great Work’ and also one of the three alchemical elements postulated by the early modern ‘father’ of alchemy, Theophrastus Paracelsus. Among the intriguing etchings by Goltzius were representations of various planets and gods, including Vulcan (the blacksmith of the gods, so certainly associable to alchemy) and Pluto (the god, as the planet had not yet been discovered!); the creation of time and space, and an allegory of cause and effect. A quote from a contemporary testifies to Goltzius’ ‘addiction’ to “philosophy and alchemy”.

What I found to be the most surprising early modern item on display was Peter-Paul Rubens’ notebook. Rubens most probably learnt about alchemical ideas and techniques from his teacher Otto van Veen or Vaenius, who also inspired quite a few other painters. Rubens made a portrait, or actually two versions of the same portrait, of the great innovator of early modern alchemy, Theophrastus Paracelsus. It is likely that these were copies from an original made by Quinten Matsys, which, like one of Rubens’ portraits, is now lost. The notebook, however, testifies to Rubens’ interest in alchemy beyond any doubt. The original of this particular notebook of Rubens is unfortunately lost as well, but the exhibition showed one of a couple of surviving transcripts. In it, Rubens brings together various sources from the history of alchemy and esotericism, such as the Paracelsian ‘trinity’ of elements, Pythagorean number symbolism, the kabbalistic tree of life (a christianized version of a Jewish mystical theme), and the very influential Emerald Tablet: a series of alchemical sayings or rules allegedly dictated by Mercurius/Hermes Trismegistus himself. The painter seems to have focussed specifically on alchemical and esoteric ideas about the human being and specifically the body. The opened pages on display showed ideas from a variety of traditions. Rubens associated or equated the Hebrew name of God (the tetragrammaton) with the human soul; he linked the Christian trinity to the Paracelsian tria prima of elements; and presented the conjunction of the feminine and the masculine as a symbol of perfection, comparable to the ideal geometrical shape of the globe.

Frank van Lamoen aptly summarized the second part of the exhibition as follows:

… free interpretations of alchemical motifs and ideas by modern and contemporary artists. To the strict historian of science, this part is perhaps even more hermetic than the alchemical texts themselves.

When entering the exhibition hall or even looking past the entrance door, the unmediated colour explosion of one of the monochrome blues (International Klein Blue) by the early conceptual artist Yves Klein burst into view.  Klein’s spiritual and alchemical interests are rarely recognized for what they are in art history. Ulli Seeger’s article in the exhibition catalogue, however, sums the facts up quite clearly. Klein read Hermetic and Rosicrucian texts and for some time he was a member of a Rosicrucian society. He conceived of the material world and the objects in it as a place of alienation, having accidentally arisen from an originally pure immateriality, and he considered his art a contribution of sorts to the return to the immaterial. This was also why the artist constructed his signature paintings in monochrome blue, pink, and gold: the confrontation with the single monochrome colour would lift the viewer to a transcendent experience. (These paintings, incidentally, were quite literally ‘signatures’, for Klein referred to himself as “Yves Klein the Monochrome”.) Klein considered even paint to be too material, or, anyway, too mixed and mediated; the pure pigment, according to the artist, would invoke the experience of the colour most aptly. Hence the considerable amount of time and energy awarded to finding a chemical glue mixture that was exactly right, so that the pigment would stick and still retain its full colour glory. Especially the colour blue inspired Klein:

First there is the nothingness, then a deep nothingness, and finally a blue depth. (Art and Alchemy, p. 186).

It led him to patenting the specific colour International Klein Blue. Also on view were traces of another interesting work by Klein, which he made not long before his premature death at the age of thirty-four: the Zones de sensibilité picturiale immatérielle. Completely in line with his programme, this was an immaterial, invisible work of art. Klein sold it for sixteen bars of gold of ten grammes each. For each part of this sum he had designated a specific recipient. The series of pictures on display documented the events that co-constituted the artwork. For instance, the moment when the director of the Museum of Decorative Arts authenticated the invisible work of art for the buyer, M. Blankfort, a transaction for which he received two of the gold bars. Klein returned half of the remaining 140 grammes to nature by throwing the bars into the Seine. The last 70 grammes were allocated as the artist’s wages. The full series of pictures can be seen on the official Yves Klein archive website.

Klein returning gold to nature.

Klein returning gold to nature.

Although much more could be said about this great exhibition, I will conclude with some notes on the surrealist works exposed. Two paintings testified to Max Ernst’s interest in alchemy. His first painting in the room, Les hommes n’en sauront rien (Men shall know nothing of this) most explicitly depicts the alchemical wedding of the masculine and the feminine, or, in more generally philosophical terms, the coincidence of opposites. He dedicated it to the father of surrealism, André Breton. The painting figures solar and lunar imagery and, in mid air, the union of a masculine and feminine lower body.

Men shall know nothing

Max Ernst’s ‘Men shall know nothing of this’, 1923.

Ernst once wrote the following words:

I must imagine that I am like a man and a woman combined in one person and that I am having sexual intercourse with myself.

His painting Bird’s wedding, on the other hand, portrays an alchemical vessel in which birds fly, and he employed the alchemical colours or transformational stages of the nigredo, rubedo and albedo (see M. E. Warlick in the exhibition catalogue: Art and Alchemy, p. 162). Alchemists often used images of birds flying up and down to depict gasses evaporating and condensing; they are to be seen, for instance, on the previously mentioned Ripley Scrolls. Ernst was much informed by the psychoanalytical theorist Herbert Silberer for his ideas about the relationships between alchemy and the psyche.

Two works that impressed me particularly were Remedios Varo’s Creacion de los aves (“Creation of the birds”) and Hallazgo (“Discovery”). Apart from the flasks and the atmosphere of chemistry, I am not sure on what basis we might assume alchemical influence in Varo’s Creacion. The painting has been among my favourites for a while, though, and it was a delight to finally see the original.

Creation of the Birds

‘Creation of the Birds’ by Remedios Varo, 1957.

The beautiful painting entitled Hallazgo (Discovery) did not seem particularly alchemical either. However, it may be regarded as reminiscent of the ancient gnostic fairytale related in the Hymn of the Pearl. Although it is situated in Egypt, rather than a beautifully dense forest, the Hymn’s main theme is the protagonist’s blind quest for a pearl – usually taken as a similitude for the divine spark of his soul – the rediscovery of which would lead him back to his forgotten home.

'Hallazgo' by Remedios Varo, 1956.

‘Hallazgo’ by Remedios Varo, 1956.

Leonora Carrington, longtime beloved of Max Ernst and intimate friend of Varo, was one of the most underestimated painters and authors of the 20th century. She was certainly acquainted with alchemy and esoteric ideas, but she laughed at intellectualists interpreters of her paintings who attempted to reduce their symbology to a single source. As I heard recounted from one of her books (by Wouter Hanegraaff, during last year’s ‘Enchanted Modernities‘ conference in Amsterdam), Carrington moreover said that the wondrous creatures she painted were generally not at all taken from specific traditions; they were simply beings which she had been seeing all around her since early childhood. Nevertheless, many of Carrington’s works invoke alchemical associations and could arguably be part of an exhibition on art of alchemy. The still life on exhibit (Naturaleza Muerta, 1960), however, did not strike me as exceptionally suitable for the purpose. Have a look, instead, at a work of her’s called “Ab eo quod”. It figures a quotation from a 14th-century manuscript, which Susan Aberth apparently classified as “alchemical”. However this may be, the painting evidently relates to the theme of transformation from black to white, or of the light present inside a world of darkness – a theme which is both gnostic and alchemical and which has pervaded intellectual or theological currents informed by alchemy, such as Christian theosophy. The quotation Ab eo quod nigram caudam habet abstine, terrestrium enim deorum est may be translated as:

Abstain from that which has a black tail, for it belongs to the earthly gods.


(My translation differs from Aberth’s).

The catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation (eds. S. Dupré, D. von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, and B. Wismer; Hirmer 2014; also published in German), is certainly worth perusing. The introductory articles are written by prominent historians of alchemy and science such as Jennifer Rampling, Lawrence Principe and William Newman and are both very informative and a pleasure to read.

The contents of this blog expresses the author’s own ideas and opinions. If you would also like to post a blog with content relevant to the BPH please contact us at The Ritman Library reserves the right not to post blogs that have no bearing on any of the library’s collecting areas.

One Response to Painters & Playful Children: Notes on the Art & Alchemy Exhibition

  1. Bergaentzlé Jean-Marie says:

    Merci pour avoir édité votre blog que je trouve extraordinaire et merveilleux à la fois ! Une ouverture sur le monde de l’art que je peux qu’apprécier !

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