The Art of Alchemy

Jacques Lagniet, “Recueil des plus illustres proverbes, divises en trois livres…” (1657-1663), engraving, on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

The “Great Art,” as it was often proclaimed in medieval Europe, was not the illuminated manuscript or religious stone carving; it was alchemy. The Art of Alchemy at the Getty Center in Los Angeles explores how the act of changing materials into new forms was not just an obscure practice, but an important part of culture.

George Ripley, “The Ripley Scroll” (England, 1700), watercolor, on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

“I realized that there not only hadn’t been a show that looked at the pivotal role that alchemy played in the relationship between art and nature from antiquity onwards, but also the non-European aspect, and how important that was,” curator David Brafman told Hyperallergic. The Getty organized The Art Of Alchemy in partnership with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, where it will travel next year.

Brafman, an associate curator of rare books, worked with Rhiannon Knol to find over 100 objects from across the collections of the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum “that manifested the application of alchemical techniques to art,” going back to the 3rd century BCE. They discovered everything from Renaissance-era books that illustrate divine creation as a metaphor for art making, to the 20-foot long “Ripley Scroll” from the 18th century that features curious alchemical symbolism, including the “philosophers’ stone,” said to have the power to transform materials, like mercury into gold.

Alchemical techniques vital to the emergence of synthetic color are also considered. A very early example is a second-century mummy portrait created with red lead pigment. This theme is further examined in the concurrent The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts at the Getty Center. “Something I kept coming across was alchemists supporting themselves with both an art industry and a pharmaceutical industry,” Brafman said. “The making of art and drugs is closely allied.”

This manipulation of nature into the synthetic is brought up to the present in The Art of Alchemy, with companies like Bayer creating colors from petroleum products alongside their pharmaceuticals. Whether glassmaking, metallurgy, or these chemical creations, alchemy is revealed to be everywhere. “Alchemy was called an art, and it’s the one that replicates nature without just trying to reproduce it,” Brafman said, emphasizing that it “straddles art, medicine, and philosophy.”

Johann Gregor van der Schardt, “Mercury” (Netherlands, 1570-1580), bronze, on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Plate with relief decoration (Byzaninte, 500 – 600 CE), silver, on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California)

Johann Joachim Becher, Physica subterranea profundam subterraneorum genesin e principiis hucusque ignotis ostendens: opus sine pari, primum hactenus et princeps (1738), on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles )

Book of wonders and oddities (Kitab al-‘aja’ib wa al-ghara’ib) (1553), on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Michael Maier, Michael and Matthaeus Merian, “Emblema XXXIII: Hermaphroditus mortuo similis, in tenebris jacens, igne indiget.” (1687), etching, from Michaelis Majeri … Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum : per oculis et intellectui accuratè accommodata, figuris cupro appositissimè incisa, ingeniosissima emblemata, hisque confines, & ad rem egregiè facientes sententias, doctissimaque item epigrammata, illustratum … , on view in The Art of Alchemy (courtesy the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

Joris Hoefnagel, “Guide for Constructing the Ligature ffi” (Flemish and Hungarian, 1591 – 1596), watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment, on view in The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts (courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Saint Mark (Byzantine, 1325 – 1345), tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment, on view in The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts (courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Follower of Hans Schilling and from the Workshop of Diebold Lauber, “Theodas with the Book of Magic and the Devil” (Germany, 1469), ink, colored washes, and tempera colors on paper, on view in The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts (courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

The Art of Alchemy continues at the Getty Center’s Getty Research Institute (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) through February 12, 2017. 

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Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...