Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Exhibit Review: Art and Alchemy

François Marius Granet, The Alchemist
On our recent trip to Europe, Lori and I made a special stop in Düsseldorf, Germany to see the Art and Alchemy exhibit at the Museum Kunstpalast. Little did we realize just how much of a treat was in store. The museum website boldly proclaims that the show spans "all epochs and genres" displaying "250 works from antiquity to the present, encompassing Baroque art, Surrealism, through to contemporary art from collections and museums in the USA, Great Britain, France, Mexico and Israel" (not to mention other work from Germany, Poland, The Netherlands, Sweden and Italy). I am happy to report that the curators not only deliver on their promise, but they do it in an expansive, elegant, well-arranged series of galleries that will appeal to virtually any audience. I am trying hard here not to be too effusive, but my goodness, what a fine collection of eye-candy. 

As one with a long-standing interest in the subjects of both art and alchemy, after years of straining at small photographic reproductions in books, it was a joy to stand before so many of the originals in their full glory. Here we find one after another of the iconic images of alchemists at work in their studios. Rendered by the Brugels (younger and elder), Cranach, Teniers, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens; all brought together in a tribute to the chemical arts. And then to turn around and find the Ripley scrolls, third century Egyptian papyri, and my personal favorite, the Treasure of the World manuscript by Antonio Neri, which I have so often highlighted in this blog. Then there is more, much more. There are coins, vessels, symbolic objects, glassware both ornamental and scientific, an assembled wunderkammer—a room filled with exotic curiosities of nature, a concept that is actually the forerunner of the modern museum. In homage to "The Great Work" of transforming base metal into gold, the exhibit winds visitors down a literal alchemical path, punctuated by displays of objects that symbolized or were created using alchemical technology. If there is any criticism to be made here, and it is minor, it might be the under-representation of the interaction between alchemy and religion.

We broke for lunch in the museum's pleasant atrium café and then embarked on the second half of the exhibit. We moved from the mysterious pensive darkness of the alchemist's realm of the first gallery space into the bright psychologically transformative space of the second gallery. Here we explored the influences of alchemy on modern art and culture, from the philosophical and psychological connections made by Carl Jung, to the surrealist movement, through to works by Duchamp, Ernst, Brauner, Klein, Kapoor and then by contemporary artists Rebecca Horn, Richard Meitner and Helmut Schweitzer. 

Only in the past two decades has alchemy started to enjoy the recognition it deserves for its broad influence on art and on the crafts. Even ten years ago an exhibit like Art and Alchemy might have been met with total puzzlement. Now there is a more general understanding among academics, historians and the public of the role alchemy played in chemistry, medicine, metallurgy, but also in the transformational aspects of art. Visual artists enjoy a unique relationship with alchemy that has deep roots, one that still may not be fully appreciated. A thoughtful visitor will find connections to explore at every turn of this exhibit. Anish Kapor evokes primary emotion with shaped mounds of pure pigment. Yves Klein also explores the realm of highly saturated individual pigments. The pieces reference alchemy on several different levels. For centuries, artists have prepared their own color pigments which required alchemical techniques or even direct dealing with alchemists. At the same time, the act of transformation and of replicating nature is fundamental to both disciplines, art and alchemy. The symbology of alchemists also has provided artists with rich sources of thematic inspiration, which is highlighted wonderfully in the selections. We particularly liked the dazzling Chymical Nuptials by Max Ernst. 

Art and Alchemy takes us on the journey that starts with the ancient transformation of raw materials and progresses to the contemporary transformation of human sensibility. It is the story of how we have learned to physically interact with natural materials and represent that interaction to ourselves. The curators have taken a certain calculated risk that the public will respond to such an ambitious project, to which I say thank you very much. A collection of this breadth, on this subject is not likely to be assembled again for some time. You have until 10 August to take the journey. 

Art and Alchemy, The Mystery of Transformation
Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.
5 April – 10 August 2014
(A beautiful catalog is also available, including an English version while they last).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Paul for this very interesting review. I hope to be able to visit the exhibit when I am in Germany in August.