“Among all the arts, it is
the Art of Alchemy
that most closely imitates nature”
—Albertus Magnus (teacher of Thomas Aquinas), [Paris], ca. 1250
“Long shrouded in secrecy, alchemy is now recognized as the ancestor of modern chemistry. Alchemists were notorious for attempting to make synthetic gold, but their goals were far more ambitious: to transform and bend nature to the will of an industrious human imagination. For scientists, philosophers, and artists alike, alchemy seemed to hold the key to unlocking the secrets of creation.
Alchemists’ efforts to discover the way the world is made have had an enduring impact on artistic practice and expression around the globe. Inventions born from alchemical laboratories include metal alloys for sculpture and ornament, oil paints, effects in glassmaking, and even the chemical baths of photography. The mysterious art of alchemy transformed visual culture from antiquity to the Industrial Age, and its legacy still permeates the world we make today.”
That’s the text you see at the entrance to the exhibition I just curated at the Getty Research Institute: The Art of Alchemy (through February 12, 2017). It took a while to get those words onto the wall and the objects installed in the galleries. Contrary to the urban legend on the Getty hill, I haven’t been working on this show since my mother, Maria Judaea (Jewish Maria), first invented distillery apparatus at Alexandria in the 1st century. Curating an alchemy exhibition at the Getty, though, has been on a back burner in my mind—which is a slow cooker—for a while.
Curious Coincidence or Kismet?
In fact, it’s probably been on my mind since I joined the Research Institute as rare books curator. Our collection of rare books on alchemy piqued my interest before I even knew it existed or had started the job and looked at any of them. (“Them” being about 500 of the coolest rare books and manuscripts I’ve ever seen.) When I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2002, I went to see an apartment in Los Feliz (where I still live), and a building on the corner of Griffith Park and Los Feliz Boulevards caught my eye. The sign at the entrance read “Philosophical Research Society,” and contemplative Egyptian statues flanked the top of the stairway. “L.A.! Dude,” was my typical New Yorker’s sardonic reaction.
A week later, I started at the Research Institute and found out that we had the rare book collection of the founder of the Philosophical Research Society: Manly Palmer Hall, a theosophist and author of a number of books, the best known of which is Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall was a charismatic figure who lectured regularly on the thought and imagery of world philosophies; his audience from the 1950s to the 1980s frequently included a number of Hollywood celebrities. Over 50 years he amassed a collection of rare books and manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries on such esoteric subjects as alchemy, kabbalah, talismanic symbols, and other miscellaneous approaches to illustrating mysticism and spirituality in book history.
Hall passed away in 1990, and the Getty Research Institute acquired the collection from his widow in 1995. As a research center focused on the history of art and visual culture, the Institute primarily sought the acquisition for the potential light it might shed on the history of visual symbolism, allegory, and metaphorical expressions of science through art from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.
I was drawn to the Manly Hall collection from the start. My graduate degree was in classics and Arabic (I worked on Arabic translations of Greek philosophy and science), and Hall’s obsession with ancient wisdom—both mystical and philosophical—“of all ages” was infectious, especially for a rare book nerd confronted by a panoply of dauntingly complex arcane imagery that that both eluded comprehension and seductively defied you to unravel and decipher its web of mystical symbolism.
“Red Mercury”: Eureka! The Philosophers’ Stone
The thing was, though, that there had already been any number of publications and exhibitions on the history of illustrated alchemy books in early modern Europe. No novel approach struck me, and my pet project kept getting consigned to a back burner, while also being fueled by a growing collection of book trucks in the vault. Then, about five years ago, a light went on while I was poking through one of my favorite manuscripts in the Hall collection, a 1606 alchemy book from Naples that opens with the phrase “Prima medicina nostra ex natura composita est” (Our first medicine comes from nature) and contains a bizarre illustrated page with a caption “Lapis philosophorum mercurius rubeus est” (The philosophers’ stone is red mercury).
I knew that “red mercury” meant vermilion pigment, and the more I riffled through the manuscript, the more I realized it was rife with arcane references to recipes for various color pigments, the application of corrosive chemicals to achieve decorative metallurgical effects, and pharmacological preparations.
The deeper I dove into the research, the murkier the subject got. One thing, though, became clear: there was a long tradition of alchemists supporting themselves by supplying synthetic substances to both the art trade and a thriving industry in prescriptive pharmaceutical medicines.
The Research Institute already had a collection of books and archives on 19th- and 20th-century color theory and recipes, and it dawned on me that our collection of alchemy books dovetailed with those collections; they offered unique primary sources for studying the earlier history of the science of color from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. (They also instigated my acquisition of a small private collection of “color-books” that focused predominantly on German Romantic color theory and the Industrial Age production of synthetic pigments, which helped provide researchers at the Getty a comprehensive rare book collection on the history of color theory and practice.)
The history of color chemistry ain’t a forté of my educational background (I once got suspended from high school for skipping chem class too many times), so my next step was a no-brainer—and easy to follow. I just had to walk a few steps across the Getty Plaza.
Getty Keepers of Secrets
I went to talk to my friend Nancy Turner, the manuscripts conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, to pick her brain about the production of synthetic pigments, and I found out that she had also been looking at alchemy texts as primary sources for medieval color recipes. I then asked if she knew who in the world might be an expert on the deliberate use of corrosives for patination effects on metal sculpture. She pointed to the door and said, “Right down the hall, Jane Bassett, the conservator of sculpture and decorative arts.”
My chat with Jane led to a discussion of such techniques in antiquity, and she pointed me to Marie Svoboda and Eduardo Sanchez, antiquities conservators at the Getty Villa. (Everybody kept pointing to the door. I’m sure they were just trying to get rid of me.)
The Getty Research Institute had the rare books describing the application of alchemy to art production, and the Getty, between the Villa and the Center, had two millennia of art objects that were the products of alchemical techniques for making art. Not only did the Getty have the books and the art objects, but also the world-leading expertise that I needed (and surely wasn’t equipped with myself). For example, I consulted with various scientific experts at the Getty Conservation Institute, particularly Alan Phenix, who, it turned out, had been delving into the early medieval distillation of resins and the key contribution of alchemy to the invention of oil paints.
Maybe everyone was trying to get me out of their offices by sending me to someone else’s, but the result of getting ushered around the Getty was the realization that it was the ideal place to present an exhibition on the relationship between alchemical history and art history from antiquity to the modern age.
What I also came to learn from visiting scholars in residence during the Getty Research Institute’s scholar theme years, such as “Connecting Seas: Cultural and Artistic Exchange,” “Artistic Practice,” “Color,” and “Art and Materiality,” was the global extent of the experimental spirit that urged on exploration into alchemical knowledge, practice, and its metaphysical matter theories.
The only thing missing at the Getty was the non-European objects that were essential for exhibiting the crucial contributions of the Chinese Daoist, Hindu Tantric, and Arabo-Persian traditions to the history of alchemical thought and practice. Such examples, though, could be found at local institutions. Without the help of loans from LACMA and UCLA’s Biomedical and East Asian libraries, we never could have presented the global scale of alchemy’s impact on artistic practice and expression, and as far as I know, there’s never been an exhibition that has taken a global approach to displaying the “art of alchemy.”
We also never could have expressed how its origins were embedded in the natural philosophy of antiquity without loans from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The show will travel there in the spring to a much bigger venue. (I waver between being excited and hearing my mother, Maria Judaea, whisper in my ear, “Oy!”)
Ars Magna (The Great Art)
In medieval Christendom, alchemy was called “The Great Art.” In Islam, it was simply الصناعة (as-sana‘ah)—“The Art.” Scientists and experimental thinkers from both cultures (along with many from many others) recognized what I’ve only recently begun to realize: Alchemy may well be the most important human invention after the wheel and the mastery of fire. (Certainly, it was a direct consequence of the latter.) The subject of alchemy encompasses a history of human curiosity puzzling over how everything in the world came into being, and the ingenuity to put the puzzle together through painstaking laboratory tests in an attempt to create a unified picture of the physical world we live in.
Alchemy was surely key to the history of materiality in the visual arts. Alchemical experimentation produced oil paints, writing inks, color pigments and dyes; the malleability of metal alloys for sculpture, ornament, engineering, and architecture; transparency in glass and the opacity of reflective mirrors; acidic washes essential to etching and lithography; and the media that now claim artistic boasting rights as the ultimate chemical mirrors of nature: photography and the liquid crystal displays of the digital world.
So what was alchemy? Maybe it was just proto-chemistry, but as Victor Frankenstein once said, “A man would make a very sorry chemist indeed if he attended to that department of history alone.” Alchemy was a science tinged with spirituality and infused with a spritz of artistic spirit. Its urge to tamper with natural forces and replicate the powers of creation carries the ominous overtone of Man playing God. Yet the creative spirit of those experimental thinkers called “alchemists,” whose awe impelled them to explore the wonders of creation, were also enthralled with the intangible sense of “instant chemistry”—that inexplicable spark of attraction felt in love at first sight. Some things not even science can explain.