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  • Madeline von Foerster - The Red Thread

The Fascination with Alchemy in Art

January 2, 2017
Eli Anapur is a pseudonym of Biljana Puric. A staff writer and editor at Widewalls, Biljana holds Master’s Degrees in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford, and Gender Studies from the Central European University. She has published academic articles as well as art and film reviews and criticism in New Eastern Europe, ARTMargins, the Journal of Curatorial Studies, and Short Film Studies; she has also contributed illustrations for Argus Magazine.

Alchemy as a protoscientific and philosophical method influenced artists to create works that can be categorized as alchemy art. However, this tradition is not generally accepted in art historical classifications, and often alchemical elements in art are subscribed under different, stylistically and historically guided categorizations. However, being as it is, it cannot be denied that alchemy had a significant influence on art and artists over the centuries, and can be traced in works from ancient Egypt, European Middle ages through Renaissance and contemporary art, to traditions of Asia and Far East. Alchemy influenced art in all its forms, including also the present-day entertainment industry. In literature alchemy appears in different historical periods, from Shakespeare to contemporary fantasy writers. In visual arts alchemy was used as a source of satire, or artists worked with alchemists to include alchemical symbols or thought in their works.

Just the etymology of the word alchemy shows us how complex this method is, and to how many traditions it relates to. Starting with the French origin of the English term alchemy in alquemie or alkimie, the etiological traces go back to Old Greek chēmeía (χημεία) or chēmía (χημία), and Egyptian kēme or black earth.[1] There are several detectable strands of alchemy that seemed independent in their earlier stages, including Chinese, Indian, and Western alchemy. The aim of alchemy was to purify, mature and perfect objects, through the process of chrysopoeia, the transmutation of base metals, search for and creation of the panaceas, including an elixir of immortality, and the perfection of human soul and body. Perhaps this last element mostly attracted artists who were always on search for perfect forms that reflect ideals of the immaterial world.

michael like history page project on distillation matter and chemistry elements
Philips Galle – The Alchemist, cca. 1558. Image via wikimedia.org

Alchemy in Western Art

Europe was first introduced with alchemy in the Middle Ages, in 1144, through the Robert Chester’s translation of the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy. Restoration of Platonic and Hermetic foundations came with the Renaissance, when Marsilo Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum and the works of Plato. Neoplatonism and Humanism of the Renaissance influenced the shift in focus from physics to human beings in Europe. Among the historical names that were interested in alchemy in this period stands out Francesco I de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who even set up an alchemy workshop in the Uffizi that was referred to as the Fonderie Medici.[2] When it comes to visual arts, alchemy appears in genre, religious, or mythological images, through different alchemical motifs and ideas, in images made within the alchemical culture, or some structural affinities with alchemy are shown in images that do not iconographically allude to alchemy.[3] Francesco I de’ Medici’ private museum and treasure house were decorated by Giorgio Vasari and a team of sculptors and painters with allegorical images that contain alchemical motifs. In alchemical texts illustrations were absent until mid-thirteen century, while the trend of depicting alchemists in genre paintings started with the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and later with Jan Steen and David Teniers the Younger. While in Northern representations didactic narratives show how alchemy leads to poverty and folly, as in Philips Galle’s print, on the Medici’s court such negative moralizing is substituted by the glorifications of science. Practical and theoretical aspects of alchemy also influenced artists to experiment with paint and contributed to its evolution.

In the late 19th and 20th century fascination with alchemy among artists continued, but the motifs and different uses of alchemical knowledge in their works differ from the previous ages. Modernist artists have seen themselves as esoteric thinkers distinguished from others by the unique creative powers they possessed. Historian John Moffitt links the appearance of abstract forms in the last decades of the 19th century to the increased public interest in practices such as Anthroposophy, Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Buddhism.[4] Rudolf Steiner and Theosophical Society influenced avant-garde artists from Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia. They focused on the spiritual order, and how it can be attained through the talismanic artistic object and artistic vision, drawing from the alternative spiritualities proposed by alchemists. This esoteric foundation of their works later became obscured by the writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who put the focus on formal qualities of their works. Later on, artists such as André Breton, Yves Klein, and Joseph Beuys did not use alchemist discourse for any ‘spiritual’ purpose, but instead to promote radical, liberal and leftist political beliefs, and also the ideas of Redemption and Utopia.

form page for chemistry science project
Giogrio Vasari – Allegory Related to Alchemy, 1570.

The Alchemist of the Avant-garde

Alchemist magus was an important figure to inspire avant-garde artists. Perhaps the most fascinating avantgardist of the early 20th century who is also regarded as the ‘alchemist’ of the avant-garde movement is Marcel Duchamp. He declares that “we must deny him [the artist] the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it.”[5] Inspired by alchemist quest for psychological projection of the unconscious level that is also found in Jung and Gnostic mystic Zosimos, Duchamp aligns himself with philosophical tradition based in alchemical thought that will become further expressed in his works, most notably in his ready-mades. Inspired by the alchemical idea of the Philosopher’s Stone that can be found everywhere, “in the country, in the village, in the town, in all things created by God; yet it is despised by all”,[6] Duchamp sees art in the most common objects. He rejects traditional concept of a work of art, and instead links it to the will of an artist who can elevate any objects to art.

Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel page, 1913
Marcel Duchamp – Bicycle Wheel, 1913

Contemporary Alchemy Art

Alchemy and esoteric practices continues to inspire creatives to the present day. Contemporary alchemy art is inspired by multiple aspects of esotery such as Kabbalah, mythology, sacred geometry, as well as astronomy and psychics. David Chaim Smith explores the motif of Tree of Life by combining it with images of the body. Christopher Ulrich uses oil to delve into the imagery of religion, magic, mythology and the unconscious. Surrealist Madeline von Foerster uses the old technique of oil and egg tempera to create her paintings and is considered one of the best Surrealists of our time, while Timothy Ely uses his talent to create single-copy, handmade books. Jungian archetypes are explored by Karena Karras, while Ann McCoy, another artist inspired by alchemy, had a dream about a king being dismembered when she was five, and later got interested in psychoanalysis and links between alchemy and incarnation. Finally, the list would not be complete without Paul Laffoley who has been creating large-scale, futuristic canvases that assemble different esoteric knowledge mankind gathered over centuries.[7]

Paul Laffoley - Black Hole 2. Image via ultraculture.com
Paul Laffoley – Black Hole 2, detail. Image via ultraculture.com

Feminist Alchemists: Leonora Carrington, Rebecca Horn, and Remedios Varo

Feminist artists such as Leonora Carrington, Rebecca Horn, and Remedios Varo should not be neglected when alchemy in art is explored. They appropriated alchemy and magic in their works in a different way than their male counterparts. Looking back at the occultist traditions and the negative image often relegated to women, these creatives tried to reverse the female role in them and to make notice of female desire and aspirations. Carrington’s surrealist works draw from Celtic literature, Jungian psychology, Renaissance paintings and medieval alchemy. Her world is filled with half-human half-animal figures, and various fantastic beasts. Rebecca Horn work includes installations and performances inspired by Surrealist machines and the absurd, while Remedios Varo in her works that many describe as disturbing, relies on surprise, and unexpected juxtapositions. Her surrealist paintings filled with solitary figures that are engaged in some scientific endeavor capture the difficult position of women of the 20th century.

Editors’ Tip: Alchemy in Contemporary Art

The book analyzes the manner in which twentieth-century artisans, beginning with French Surrealists of the 1920s, have appropriated concepts and imagery from the western alchemical tradition. This study examines artistic production from 1920 to the present, with an emphasis on the 1970s to 2000, discussing familiar names such as Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, and Anselm Kiefer, as well as many little known figures of the later twentieth century. It provides a critical overview of the alchemical tradition in twentieth-century art, and of the use of occultist imagery as a code for political discourse and polemical engagement. The study is the first to examine the influence of alchemy and the Surrealist tradition on Australian as well as on Eastern European and Mexican art. In addition, the text considers the manner in which women creatves such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Rebecca Horn have critically revised the traditional sexist imagery of alchemy and occultism for their own feminist purposes.

References:

  1. Douglas H., Alchemy, Online Etymology Dictionary. [December 30, 2016]
  2. Korey A., (2013), The Uffizi, alchemy and art in the Cinquecento, arttrav.com [December 30, 2016]
  3. Wamberg J., (2006),  Art & Alchemy, p.13.
  4. Szulakowska U., (2011), Alchemy in Contemporary Art, p. 2.
  5. Duchamp M., (1957), The Creative Act,  Art News, vol. LVI, no. 4, p. 28
  6. Barcius, (1679),  Gloria mundi, alias Paradysi tabula, in: Musaeum hermeticum, Part. VI.
  7. Louv J., 7 Contemporary Artists Influenced by Alchemy and Magick, ultraculture.org  [December 30, 2016]

Featured images: Madeline von Foerster – Red Thread [crop]. Image via www.madelinevonfoerster.com; Remedios Varo – Magic Flight or Zamfonia. Image via wikiart.org; Timothy Ely – Impossible Landscape. Image via ultraculture.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.