Alchemy. The Great Art – Exhibition

Alchemy is an interesting subject matter often dealt with in art and film…but what is it exactly? Kulturforum has an exhibition until July 23, 2017 dealing solely with the topic of alchemy. Here is my impression of it plus my thoughts piecing together films I’ve seen about the mysterious topic.

The term ‘Alchemy’ is derived from the Greek chēmeía (‘metal-pouring’, i.e. smelting or alloying).

Whenever I think of alchemy the first thing that comes to mind is the film The Holy Mountain, written and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the movie, the protagonist turns his excrement into gold through a long process using lots of funny measuring tools and rituals.


My second association is the film Code Name: Ruby by Jan Němec, which I saw at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. In the movie, a couple look for the Holy Grail in Prague and experiment with transforming stones into gold.


Both of the films show alchemy as a quite weird, mystic hobby that semi-crazy people engage in. However, the origin of alchemy is actually quite ancient, dating back to Ancient Egypt, the Babylonian Empire, Ancient Greek philosophers, and even Chinese and Indian medicinal practices. The diverse history of alchemy is something that is wonderfully presented throughout the exhibition.   

Der Alchemist, nach Pieter Bruegel dem Älteren, 1558, Kupferstich © bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Foto: Jörg P. Anders

My first learning from the exhibition is that not all achlemists are insane. Actually most early alchemists were conducting early chemistry experiments, forming the basis of modern-day chemistry and leading to the creation of several materials such as glass.  It was definitely a highlight for me to see how the idea of alchemy has been handled throughout different cultures at different periods of history.  

In medieval Europe, Alchemy was known as Ars magna (the Great Art), and its practice produced artistic effects.  

Traité de Chymie, Frankreich, um 1700, S. 10/11, Aquarell und Tinte auf Papier © The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Another cool thing I learned from the exhibition is that alchemy isn’t just about the creation of gold, known as chrysopoeia. In fact, lots of alchemists focused on the mere act of creation, and being one with nature. Lots of illustration in medieval books display pictures of tools, and a man and women that look like Adam and Eve. Other images displayed mythical beings, two-headed creatures and godlike figures.

Quecksilberquelle aus dem Samen Shivas Guler (Pahari), um 1770, Deckfarbenminiatur, Koblenz, Sammlung L. Habighorst © Sammlung L. Habighorst, Koblenz

The exhibition is divided into three parts: creation, creator, and great work (magnum opus). Check out a wide variety of artifacts on display, ranging from videos, gems, jewellry, sculptures, laboratory books, manuscripts, and photographs. After going to the exhibition you should have a much broader understanding of what alchemy is, how it developed throughout history and even formed the basis for modern day chemistry.  


It becomes clear that Alchemy remains to this day far more than a fantastic pipe dream of making gold: Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice.


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