Alchemists and artists: the art of transformation

An impression of Alchemy – Das Geheimnis der Verwandlung, an exhibition in the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, 5 April – 10 August 2014.

The visual arts and alchemy have so much in common that we are easily inclined to take a painter for an alchemist. The earliest texts in the alchemical canon are concerned with imitating pearls, gold and silver and making pigments. Whoever tries to get to grips with how colours can change thinks like a painter and works like an alchemist. Both alchemists and artists are fascinated by the mystery of a transformation which to some extent is guided and shaped by themselves. Many visual artists are also sensitive to religious visual imagery and the psychological interpretation of alchemy according to which the artist-alchemist himself transforms during the creative process and achieves new insights through his work. All of these aspects are dealt with in the stunning exhibition in the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.

Jörg Breu, Splendor Solis oder Sonnenglanz (fol. 16: Sumpfmann und Engel), 1531/32

Jörg Breu, Splendor Solis oder Sonnenglanz (fol. 16: Resurrection out of the Swamp), 1531/32

The exhibition starts off on an almost gnostic note: the curiosity and disobedience of Adam and Eve did not only bring sin but also knowledge into the world: science in exchange for immortality.

This first historical part of the exhibition breathes a dark and mysterious atmosphere, though it is also playfully designed. Here and there a modern work is exhibited among the old art, which fits in well with the theme of the exhibition. The cabinet of curiosities, for instance, includes not only the usual rare objects, but also a splendid modern sculpture made of pigeon’s feathers.

David Teniers d.J., Alchemist in his Workplace, ca. 1650

David Teniers the Younger, ‘Alchemist in his Workplace’, ca. 1650

The irony of the history of science is that of all hard sciences, chemistry kept its appeal for the visual arts for a long time because of its relatively slow progress. In the absence of mathematical models and formulas, the available vocabulary consisted of vague allusions, violent images, erotic metaphors and religious allegories depicting the resurrection of purified matter. This complex body of images gave rise to works of art like the Ripley Scroll and the magnificent Splendor Solis. Both 16th-century manuscripts are to be admired in the exhibition, in several manuscript versions. In addition, there are also paintings and drawings showing the alchemist at work as the master of change in his laboratory. The traditional scenes as they are depicted in paintings and prints look less enigmatic: in one of them, we see a messy alchemist throwing away his last pennies in a crucible, while his wife and starving children are weeping in the background. The message is clear: the alchemist has lost it all – in Dutch, there is a pun on the word ‘alchemist’, who has ‘al gemist’, i.e. has lost all. Less moralistic at first sight are the well-known paintings by David Teniers the Younger showing the alchemist working the furnace , surrounded by retorts, pots and books, arranged like a somewhat untidy still life. What is striking is that there are no alchemical images to be seen in the opened books. Were they books of recipes? And were the known illustrated works perhaps not practical in nature, but exclusively meant as study material? There is also no hint of religiosity, something which is so often attributed to the alchemist. This in fact is also true for the entire exhibition, which does highlight the random by-products of alchemy, such as porcelain, coloured glass, salpeter and gunpowder.

'Hermes Trismegistus' (1995) by Sigmar Polke.

‘Hermes Trismegistus’ (1995) by Sigmar Polke.

The second part of the exhibition is presented in bright surroundings and shows 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. Some of the works presented, however, are simply full of beauty and have an aura of alchemy, even though they were perhaps not conceived as such by the artist. Sometimes, though, there are all too conspicuous references to the alchemical process in the Latin titles used, while the retorts are never far away in the imagery. To my taste these are not the strongest works. There are also artists who work with natural materials and pigments in a way reminiscent of the alchemical process. This is how the arte povera is incorporated in the exhibition, with traces of fire and smoke in works by Jannis Kounellis. The exhibition also shows a monumental work by Anselm Kiefer, the painter who is renowned for his innovative use of lead and organic material, as well as works by Yves Klein, known for his blue pigment, and James Lee Byars with his touches of gold. Sigmar Polke combines the alchemical use of material with painted projections of alchemical engravings by Michael Maier and does something similar with the floor mosaic showing Hermes Trismegistus in the Cathedral in Siena. Finally there are the artists who derive inspiration from alchemical concepts based on the psycho-analytical interpretations of Herbert Silberer, and, in his wake (though never acknowledged as such), Carl Gustav Jung. Also featured are the surrealists, such as André Breton, or Anish Kapoor and Rebecca Horn. In spite of all the differences between these artists, they attempt with their art to achieve a transformation of themselves, which breaks through old confines and opens up a new creative horizon, which itself has to be transcended in turn. Solve et coagula.

Rebecca Horn, 'Zen of Ara', 2011.

Rebecca Horn, ‘Zen of Ara’, 2011.

Frank van Lamoen.

Leave a comment