Now recognized as the ancestor of modern chemistry, alchemy is a mysterious and often misunderstood blend of science, philosophy, and spirituality. Alchemists were notorious for making artificial gold, but their impact extended far beyond their desire for noble metals. David Brafman, associate curator of rare books and curator of The Art of Alchemy at the Getty Research Institute, discusses how this medieval magic has had an enduring influence on scientific and artistic culture.
More to Explore
The Art of Alchemy exhibition information
The Getty Alchemy Collection archive materials
Featured works in this episode:
- The Ripley Scroll, ca. 1700, English. Watercolor. The Getty Research Institute, 950053
- Mummy Portrait of a Woman, 100–110, attributed to the Isidora Master. Encaustic on wood, gilt, linen. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 81.AP.42
- Crystal Icosahedron (Water Atom), ca. first century. Rock crystal. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
- A Chinese Mercury Industrial Complex, 1637, reprint 1929, Chinese. Facsimile of woodcut in Song Yingxing, Tian Gong Kai Wu (Exploitation of the Works of Nature). UCLA Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library
- The Chemical Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite, 1687, Matthäus Merian the Elder. Engraving in Michael Maier, Scrutinium chymicum. The Getty Research Institute, 1380-908
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVID BRAFMAN: I think in the end, alchemy was a science that was infused with spirituality and an extra spritz of artistic spirit.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak about alchemy with David Brafman, associate curator of rare books at the Getty Research Institute.
Since the dawn of time, humans have been on a quest to understand how the world is made. Alchemy, a mysterious mixture of science, philosophy, and spirituality, has over the centuries played a key role in this quest. Now recognized as the ancestor of modern chemistry, alchemy contributed to many discoveries during its long history, including artificial gold, alcohol distillation, the composition of porcelain, and the invention of gunpowder.
Alchemy has also had an impact on artistic practice and expression. It is this aspect that was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Getty Research Institute titled The Art of Alchemy. Featuring manuscripts and rare books, prints, and sculptures from the GRI’s rich holdings, the exhibition has since closed to the public. But before it closed, I spoke with David Brafman, associate curator of rare books at the GRI and curator of the exhibition. We met in the exhibition galleries.
David, the first thing we want to know is why you proposed the exhibition and what it tells us about the depth and range of the GRI’s collections.
BRAFMAN: Well, Jim, actually I think proposing the exhibition went back to the acquisition, the original acquisition of the collection. Before I came here, in 1995, the Research Institute had acquired a collection of rare books on esoterica—alchemy, kabbalah, mysticism, witchcraft—that belonged to a Los Angeles resident, Manly Palmer Hall. We acquired it from his widow. And Manly Palmer Hall was a Theosophist, a lover of divine wisdom, and he was also the founder of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz in Los Angeles. And we had acquired it really to see what it might contribute to the history of visual symbolism in art history, on such subjects as allegory, metaphor, and how such things were represented in artworks. About five years ago, I was looking through one of the manuscripts in that collection and I came across a phrase that said, “The philosopher’s stone is red mercury.” And if there was one thing that I knew about chemistry, of which I don’t know much because I was suspended from high school for not attending chemistry class, I knew that red mercury was vermillion paint pigment. And I started seeking out colleagues at the museum starting with the conservator of manuscripts there, Nancy Turner, to see what she knew about synthetic pigments. And she led me to other colleagues—conservators, curators at the museum and at the Villa. And what I came to find is that we had the rare books on alchemy and the museum had 2,000 years of artworks that manifested the application of alchemical techniques to the creation of artwork, of effects, of artifice in artwork.
CUNO: So when you first started out with this curious interest in alchemy, it was with regard to its use in the making of art; it wasn’t for alchemy in and of itself.
BRAFMAN: Yeah, that’s very true.
CUNO: So tell us, what is alchemy and when did it first appear as a scientific or pseudoscientific pursuit?
BRAFMAN: I think alchemy first appears when humans try to toy with the world. Alchemy appears when people first obtain mastery over fire. If you think of the wonder that the first person or people who took sand and heated it until it turned into glass; or took a stone like malachite, a blue mineral, and subjected it to the flames and were able to extrude copper out of it—and glass and copper, both malleable substances that you could mold, and they would keep their form for thousands of years.
It was miraculous. And I think even if you go further back than that, when humans copy animals and take meat and other foodstuffs and bury them so that they ferment, and the fermentation gives off heat, it literally cooks the food for them, so—
CUNO: So it was as much or even more the miracle of the magical transformation of things from one element to another element, or from two elements together becoming a third composite, that attracted the attention, you think, in the early history of alchemy, over and above the utility of, you know, the functioning of such work.
BRAFMAN: I think it was a little bit of both. I mean, I think the industrious human imagination in its attempt to grasp nature also led to seeing that you could literally grasp nature. You could wield it in the service of human benefits.
CUNO: You write that the Sicilian-Greek philosopher Empedocles proposed that all matter was composed of four elements. How did he come to propose that?
BRAFMAN: Well, that’s a difficult question.
CUNO: And what did it mean for alchemy that he did propose it?
BRAFMAN: Mm. I think how he came to propose it goes back to what we were saying about just the human urge to grasp the world. Why do young children, one of the first words—I don’t know if it’s one of the first words, but certainly by the age of five, they start asking why, how, what? And want to get at the basis of things, understanding the world. Empedocles was a philosopher and a physician. And he wanted to understand how was the world created? What was the nature of creation, in a sense. He was also a physician. So for him, examining the four elements meant looking at, what are the building blocks of the philosophy world? And he proposed that they were earth, air, fire, and water, that combined together to create and perpetuate the world. He also says that those elements are indivisible, the way we understand elements. And the Greek word for indivisible or uncut is atomos. Ad that’s where we get the word atoms.
And like I said, he was also a physician. And in a poem—he actually writes his philosophy through poetry. And in the poem that he proposes this idea of the four elements mingling together, he says that they mix together just like a painter mixes colors, using more of some, less of others, to get the harmony of painting. And there’s a harmony of the world. And an interesting aspect of the Greek is that the word he uses of the material pigments of color is pharmakeia, drugs, medicines. Obviously, where we get the word pharmacology.
So what he’s looking at and what that means for alchemy, this science that wants to take natural matter and synthesize man-made materials out of it, is that he’s looking at how the combination of these building blocks of the world can be manipulated and recombined in the service of mankind, whether as a medicine, a pharmakon, a drug; and that these same pharmakeia, drugs, can be used to make art materials.
CUNO: Tell me how this might be evident in this object, which is one of the earliest objects in the exhibition. It’s a rock crystal from the north of Rome, which dates from the first century. So tell us about its relationship to this early history of alchemy.
BRAFMAN: Well, working off of Empedocles’ idea of the four elements, later contemporaries—he was an older contemporary of Socrates. And Socrates’ student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle give these four elements and their particles, their atoms, form. I mean, literally, it’s an atomic theory. And what you have in this rock crystal is a piece of crystal that has been deliberately carved so that it has twenty sides, twenty facets. What you would say in Greek, icosahedron, twenty sides. And Plato and Aristotle proposed a theory about these atoms, these particles that make up the four elements, that they had geometric shapes. Earth was a cube; water, its atom was twenty-sided, an icosahedron; air, an octahedron, eight-sided; and fire, a tetrahedron, like a pyramid. And basically, for them, taking these geometric forms for the atom basically provided both a mathematical model for envisioning the world and an artistic method for rendering the world.
CUNO: Yeah. So this was found in the tomb of a young woman around the first century, as we said just a minute ago. Is that important? What relationship would this have to the tomb of the young woman? It represents something? Or would it do something to preserve the body? Or why was it there?
BRAFMAN: Very much it’s an artwork that acts as a symbol or a token. It’s an icosahedron, twenty-sided. So it’s a symbol of a water atom. And her parents placed it there, most probably, as a token of her trip through the River Styx, the river of the underworld. And I have to admit that every time I see it, I kind of mist up a little bit.
CUNO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it—and it’s exhibited against a book that is opened to a page in which there’s an image of, I suppose, the same form. But it was—it’s attributed to Leonardo.
BRAFMAN: Yeah. In fact, the book is Divina Proportione, Divine Proportion, written by Luca Pacioli. It’s printed in 1509. Luca Pacioli was the mathematician for the Sforzas, the aristocratic family that ruled Milan. And he actually composes the manuscript for the book in 1498, when Leonardo was an obscure young artist who’s living with him, and Pacioli has taught him mathematics. And in return, Leonardo da— Leonardo da Vinci renders the particles of these four atoms, what are by that point called the Platonic solids, in return for Pacioli giving him a place to live. So by juxtaposing a first century piece that actually, as a miniature sculpture represents the atom of water, I’m putting it together with a piece from the fifteenth, sixteenth cen—well, the book is from the sixteenth century. That shows how to render these building blocks of life, these three-dimensional building blocks of life, onto a two-dimensional plane, through artistic perspective.
CUNO: Yeah. Would Leonardo have used the term alchemy in the making of this? Would he have understood what it meant if he was told the term alchemy?
BRAFMAN: Very much so. He—I don’t think he was using alchemy when he was rendering this, but he was very familiar and a little bit derisive about alchemists. He said that they were nuts, but he also said they have great recipes for making beautiful red colors, as well as making what he called mosaic gold.
BRAFMAN: [over Cuno] So he used their techniques.
CUNO: [over Brafman] useful to him, yeah. [Brafman: Yeah] Now, you describe another guy, a guy Zosimos of Panopolis, [Brafman: Mm-hm] who was active in Egypt, I think, during the third century of the common era, as the first alchemist. You describe him as the first alchemist. How did he become involved in what we today call alchemy? And did he call it that then?
BRAFMAN: He’s the first alchemist whose writings survive. And in fact, he cites earlier alchemists. The most important one is a woman who lives in Alexandria, probably in the first century, Maria Judea, Maria the Jew. And he credits her with most of the apparatus that is still used today in distilleries. Zosimos himself engaged in a practice that was called khemia. It was a Greek word that meant metal pouring. It meant the blending or the alloying of metals. And you have to understand that Egypt, and especially Alexandria, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, Egypt very much becomes a melting pot of different ideas—both Greek natural philosophy, and three millennia of Egyptian metallurgy, medicine, which was bound for them in their mythology about the world.
Zosimos himself, he’s a bit of a mystery. Some people say that he was an Egyptian priest that worked in a secret laboratory of the Egyptian priesthood. But what he does for alchemy, as do a few other speculative thinkers about the natural world, is that he not only describes the artisanal practice of khemia, the root of the word alchemy, this metal alloying and, you know, blending, mixing, but he infuses it with a philosophical idea, with a philosophical bent to it. That the reason that khemia works is—well, there’s a soul that runs through all things; all things are unified by having soul or spirit in them. And if you could separate the soul from the substance and recombine it somehow, that you could tinker with the very essence of reality. And one of the concepts in which Zosimos is operating, if you think third century Egypt of our era, this is also the period that sees the rise of Christianity. The monastery of Saint Catherine was in Sinai from the third, fourth century. And in fact, Zosimos, some of his vocabulary for the process of bathing things in chemicals, he uses the Greek word baptizo, which is where we get the word baptize. So it really is this idea of imbuing substance with soul, with spirit. And so his contribution to the field is immense. He’s both describing chemical processes, but he is enhancing them with a philosophical concept.
CUNO: So I gather by what you say that he wrote these things down in some fashion, or others wrote them down from his speaking them. How did these things that he wrote down survive, and where did they come into our world?
BRAFMAN: Well, some, the earliest Greek texts—and he probably would’ve written in Greek, because this was during the Greco-Roman period of Egypt being occupied, first by Alexander the Great, then the Romans. There is a manuscript in Paris that preserves some of Zosimos’ writings. But most of his writings are preserved for us in Syriac, and mostly Arabic translations of the Greek.
And in fact, how we get the word alchemy is the Arabic transliteration of the word khemia, metal pouring, into al—the Arabic definite article, the—khemia, al-khemia. And that’s where the word alchemy comes from.
CUNO: Oh, yeah, right. Now just down the way from that rock crystal is a very beautiful second century Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait of an aristocratic woman. And you’ve put that here because of some connection to this history of alchemy. Tell us where we see alchemy at work in this beautiful, beautiful painting.
BRAFMAN: Well, the context for it is that the Egyptians are credited by many as the first culture where their chemists created the first synthetic paint pigment of taking different materials and combining them to get a color. And this mummy is painted in what’s called red lead. It’s a lead carbonate. And the Egyptians knew that lead was toxic if you ate it, but it would also be toxic if rats, mice, insects ate it. So in fact, the use of the red lead pigment not only adorns the mummy and gives it beauty, if you will, but it also preserves it from infestation.
And you might keep in mind that in ancient Greek, the word kosmos means order; but it also means adornment, ornamentation; that the cosmos was a work of art. So I mean, in terms of medical applications, it’s the use of the synthetic pigment that preserves her immortality. And the Egyptians would also use the same red lead pigment as eye makeup, as cosmetics. Cosmetics comes from the word kosmos.
CUNO: You’ve talked to us about an ancient Greek and Sicilian philosopher, and you’ve talked to us, too, about an earlier Egyptian philosopher, and we’ve gotten to this point. But you also tell us that alchemy is not only a Western phenomenon, but it spread, actually, across the Silk Road, east from the Mediterranean. When and how did that happen? And how is that shown in this exhibition, say in this twentieth century facsimile of a nineteenth century Chinese woodcut, I presume?
BRAFMAN: Well, many people argue about the different directions that alchemy took. But I would say fundamentally, it really comes to the West after it’s been in Africa and Asia. And in fact, this—the facsimile that we have in the show of what’s actually a seventeenth century woodcut from 1637 of a Chinese work that’s called Tian Gong Kai Wu, which literally means exploitation of the works of nature. You couldn’t think of a better title to describe alchemy. And what is being depicted is what I describe in the exhibition as a mercury-industrial complex. On the two facing leaves, first they’re showing a rock being crushed up. And the rock that’s being crushed up is cinnabar, a mineral that’s ubiquitous in especially Western China. It was a red and white rock that was composed of mercury and sulfur—mercury sulfide. And what the Chinese learned very early was how to crush up this rock and then heat it, and the mercury would evaporate before the sulfur did. And then they could condense the mercury, cool it, and condense it back into its liquid, metallic, mercurial state in another receptacle. Both mercury and silver have numerous applications in chemistry, which alchemists learned early on. But so does sulfur.
And in fact, a Chinese alchemist named Wei Boyang in the first century, figures out that one could use sulfur as the main ingredient in what he called huo yao, which means fire drug; i.e., gunpowder. And it’s a Chinese alchemist that invents gunpowder. And it’s interesting to me that he uses the word drug just the word Empedocles uses pharmakon, drug, to apply to paint pigments.
CUNO: So by that story, you’re letting us know that alchemy, as a practice, was evident in China almost as early as it was in the Mediterranean. [Brafman: Yeah] So a suggestion that they even had to travel from one point to another is erroneous. They could’ve been simultaneously created or explored.
BRAFMAN: Egyptologists and Sinologists are in a constant argument about whether the Egyptians invented the first synthetic pigment or whether the Chinese invented the first synthetic pigment.
CUNO: Now, I think you said that alchemy became associated with creativity during the Medieval and Renaissance eras in the West. Tell us how that came to be, and how do we see that here, standing in front of this case with things related to the so-called stone of the philosophers?
BRAFMAN: Well, certainly, alchemy becomes associated with creativity much earlier in parts of Asia and in Africa. And it really is imported to the West, mostly through Arabic translations into Latin. Leaps in artistic creativity and the use of different kinds of chemical bonds and materials to create dazzling effects in paint, glass making, et cetera, are developed among Islamic alchemists, Egyptian alchemists. It’s something that comes much earlier. What tends to appear in Europe is the kind of thing that first intrigued me in the collection of rare books that were at the GRI that greeted me when I came to the GRI. And that was depicting science through art, using these different artistic metaphors to express these different chemical reactions and physical processes.
As for the philosophers stone, something that is remarked upon, I think even as early as Zosimos, is that if you take the mineral cinnabar, which was composed of mercury and sulfur, mercury sulfide is its basic component. If you use alchemical apparatus—furnaces and condensers and distillers—to separate out mercury and sulfur, get out all the extraneous crap, if I may say, and you’ll have mercury and sulfur in pure form. And then you recombine them. You get this brilliant red color, synthetic cinnabar, otherwise known as vermillion, that beautiful, bright ruby-red pigment, which for alchemists or for anybody who was engaged in playing with these chemical substances, it meant that you could not only imitate nature and the bonds that nature had made over millions of years in creating minerals, but you could surpass nature. You could perfect nature, and you could also accelerate nature. That if you separated out mercury and sulfur from cinnabar and recombined it, you could do it in a matter of days, I think, if not hours. And to make the rock cinnabar which one finds all over China takes millions of years of geological activity.
CUNO: So are you saying that in the creation of artificial phenomena that imitate so perfectly natural phenomena, it was a way to overcome the burdens of having to wait for nature to take its course and produce it? That you could produce it in a matter of hours, as you say.
BRAFMAN: In a matter of hours. Exactly.
CUNO: [over Brafman] So it was a matter of efficiency, and it was a matter of an unending source of this material, because you could recreate it all the time.
BRAFMAN: You could recreate it all the time. And not only that, but it was also part of this constant quest of an industrious human imagination, if I could say, to examine how to unlock these mysterious secrets of creation.
If you take a rose and you crush it up and put it in water, you’re not gonna get a red paint out of it the way nature creates red in a rose. You have to figure out how to create these colors yourself. And that is part of what always impelled alchemy. And what I quickly found out the more that I investigated the subject, was that alchemists generally, even though they had this reputation for trying to transmute base metals like lead into gold, they were really supporting themselves by supplying the art trade and the pharmaceutical trade. They were supplying art and medical industries.
CUNO: Mm-hm, mm-hm. Now, you emphasize two other areas in the recounting the development of alchemy, if we’ve just left the Renaissance, as it were. You said the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and the Romantic and Industrial eras of the nineteenth century. You trace the development in the West, of the development of the economy, I suppose. And in this respect, we’re standing right now in front of a very long and intensely drawn and painted scroll called the Ripley Scroll, which dates from about 1700, I think. [Brafman: Yeah, yeah] And it was painted in England? Please describe it for us and tell us what function it had and what it has to do with the history of alchemy.
BRAFMAN: It’s one of the twenty-one extant, what’s called the Ripley Scroll. [Cuno: I see] And it was obs— [Cuno: I see] ascribed to George Ripley. He was a Roman Catholic clergyman who writes a poem, The Compound of Alchemy. And the reasons that these scrolls are called the Ripley Scrolls is because interspersed among the thread of the imagery are parts of his poem or poems that are very similar. So they all ascribe Ripley Scrolls to George Ripley as the author and the artist. Ours is one of only two that actually have his name at the top of it.
None of these scrolls were made during his lifetime. But there are many more scholarly opinions about the meaning of the scroll. It’s filled with cryptic imagery. It’s clear that the cryptic imagery all applies to different chemical reactions, in a secret kind of way that you have to decipher. And many people disagree about its decipherment.
CUNO: Well, describe to us what we’re looking at. We see a figure who’s a long-haired, long-bearded, red-coated figure with a big glass bowl of some kind in front of him, in which things are happening.
BRAFMAN: Right. He’s not Santa Claus, although he very much looks like Saint Nick. He is probably either representing God or a semi-mythical Egyptian figure, Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes three times the greatest, whose writings, much like Zosimos, provided a theoretical philosophical underpinning for alchemy in the first centuries of the Christian era in Egypt. But he’s holding a vessel that’s showing the catalyst of different reactions. Below the giant chemical vessel is a furnace. Below the furnace, you have a tree from which emerges a snake that somehow morphs into a woman with webbed feet. And the woman is touching the rib of a man. And by that activity, imbues him with this golden nimbus.
So in some ways, it’s a reverse picture of creation, of Adam and Eve. She’s touching Adam’s rib. And it proceeds down through various different depictions of alchemical processes, but I think also the history of alchemy. You have seven alchemists or philosophers pouring the contents of vessels into a giant fountain, from which there is a interwoven grapevine that very much likes distillation apparatus. And the seven alchemical figures seem to have ethnic garb. So they probably are representing historical alchemists, an idea that’s supported by the fact that there’s only one woman shown, and that must be Maria Judea, [Cuno: Yeah] Mary the Jew. I can go through the whole thing. It would take us hours and hours.
CUNO: Just tell me quickly, how would this function? Would someone read it? Would someone unroll it like a—as in a Chinese scroll of some kind, and it would tell a long narrative of some kind?
BRAFMAN: This is the question that is asked of me on every tour, and I still don’t have an answer to it. Most scrolls, when you look at them, even though they run in a certain direction, there are usually kind of panels, so that you could only unroll part of it and see a section of it. This scroll wants to be viewed in its entire—well, unfurled entirely. And in a sense, it’s giving you both a genealogy of the history of alchemical experimentation but it’s also giving you the processes of alchemy. So in a sense, having it be this huge oversized scroll, the viewer is almost immersing themselves in a test tube, in a chemical vessel, and experiencing it. One interesting aspect about our scroll, though, is that while I always thought that it was late-ish, that it was about 1700, judging by the painting style and the paleography, the handwriting seemed later than the Renaissance, but in the sort of cosmic vessel that you were talking about that shows different processes, I discovered one thing that—some spirit evanescing out of what’s called an alembic, the closed chemical beaker that was invented by Maria Judea. You find on ours, three test tubes that are yellow, red, and a bluish green. And it’s only in 1723 that an art theorist, Jacques (read: Jacob) [Christopher] Le Blon, publishes a book, Il Coloritto. And he proposes that yellow, red, and blue are the three primary colors, from which all other colors can be made.
I’ve looked at most of the Ripley Scrolls in the world, if not all, and I believe that ours is the only one that has three test tubes of those colors. Usually they have one color or two. And before Jacques (read Jacob) Le Blon people would argue that there were four primary colors, corresponding to the four elements; or seven primary colors, corresponding to the seven known planets or the chromatic scale in music, et cetera, et cetera. But in ours, it shows the three primary colors being produced. Literally pigments, paint pigments, are being produced out of this chemical beaker, showing the relationship between alchemy and artistic production.
CUNO: Okay, now I have to ask you about this extraordinary image, and tell me how it could possibly have related to alchemy. And it’s an image of a hermaphrodite. And the engraving, which is a 1687 Swiss engraving, I guess, it’s called The Chemical Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite.
BRAFMAN: Yeah. This is one of the hardest things to explain quickly in any public tour. The idea’s based on really an ancient concept, that probably goes back to Babylonia. That the seven known planets at the time—the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—corresponded with the seven known metals, which were probably known since prehistory—gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, and lead. And these things, if you go back to high school Greek mythology and Roman mythology, Hermes, in Greek, is the god Mercury that corresponds to the planet Mercury. Aphrodite, in Roman, was the goddess Venus, and she was born on the Island of Cyprus, from where we get the metal copper and we get the word copper. And Cyprus had this huge copper producing industry. And what this metaphor is showing is—it’s basically using art to express a scientific process. If you take mercury and copper—so Mercury and Venus, basically—and you take them and you sprinkle gold on top of it and you heat the combination, mercury will evaporate. And as it evaporates, it bonds gold to the surface of copper—or bronze, or most metals. And what you have in this hermaphrodite, this supposed kind of unnatural creation, is you have an artistic depiction of what they called mercury amalgam gilding.
And that’s how alchemists made gold. They didn’t transform things into gold; they just used mercury to bond a little bit of gold to the surface of copper or bronze. They think that it was invented in China in the fifth century BCE, and it’s in use up through the nineteenth century. It’s finally outlawed in Paris, when they realize mercury is driving people mad. If I can add, the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland is mad because mercury vapors were used to clean stovepipe hats, velvet and satin hats. So they were constantly breathing mercury vapors, and that’s what drove them mad.
CUNO: Well, you know, you’re driving us mad because there’s so much to learn from this exhibition and its so complex, and yet so beautiful. You’ve given a number of tours of it, as you’re giving me a tour of it today. And I imagine people have asked you a number of, as I have, surprising questions about alchemy. What was the most surprising question you’ve been asked? And have you been confronted by contemporary alchemists with their peculiar, and perhaps dissenting ahistorical views of alchemy, while you’ve been giving these tours?
BRAFMAN: Most of the visitors to the exhibition have been people interested in the history of science, history of art; a lot of artists, who were very enamored of the idea of thinking of themselves as alchemists and the idea of creativity. But I guess there were two questions that really made me stutter. And one was asking me, “So what do you think is art?” And I stuttered. I—well, I said, “Well, I think art is when someone is inspired by what they see in the world, to express something physically in the world.”
And I was also asked, “What is alchemy?” Which, a question that makes anybody stutter. I think in the heart of every chemist, still beats the heart of an alchemist. But I think in the end, alchemy was a science that was infused with spirituality and an extra spritz of artistic spirit. And that’s my stock answer.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVID BRAFMAN: I think in the end, alchemy was a science that was infused with spirituality and ...