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Alchemy in Art History? As Above, So Below | City of the Seekers

A new exhibition at the Getty Research Institute puts Manly P. Hall's alchemical manuscripts in the context of art history.

In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.

Before chemistry, there was alchemy, which investigated the transformation of matter into new substances. From antiquity through the Enlightenment, reaching its height of popularity during the Middle Ages, it may not have always been about turning base metals into gold, but alchemists such as Roger Bacon, Pope John XXII, Paracelsus, and Isaac Newton each understood that certain combinations of materials led to new achievements.

As such, alchemy created new tools for creativity. Now, thanks to a collection donated to the Getty in 1995 by the widow of LA's own godfather of esoteric teachings, Manly P. Hall, The Art of Alchemy at the Getty Research Institute highlights how alchemy became a driving force not just in science, but in the history of art as well.

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Strip-Mining Sulfur at Pozzuoli by Anton Eisenhoit (German, 1553/4–1603). Engraving in Michele Mercati, Metallotheca Vaticana (Rome, 1717), pl. after p. 78, the Getty Research Institute

Dr. David Brafman, Curator of The Art of Alchemy, put the exhibition with over 100 rare books, manuscripts, and other items from cultures around the world, all dating from 300 BCE to the last century. The show is organized in three parts: "Alchemical Creation," which displays an example of synthetic coloring matter from the Greco-Roman era; "Alchemy and Creativity," which explores how the practice of transmuting matter broadened the scope of creative expression; and "Alchemical Culture," which looks at its legacy from the Renaissance and beyond.

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The Doctor of Fools by Theodor de Bry (Franco-Flemish, 1528–1598). Engraving in Jacques Lagniet, Recueil des plus illustres proverbes, divises en trois livres (Paris, 1657–1663), pl. 15, the Getty Research Institute

Working with Hall's collection, Brafman started to see connections between the books' arcane artwork and the composition of matter as creative material for artists. "Amid the esoteric imagery there were also recipes for color pigments, inks, metallurgical effects, and ceramic glazes," Dr. Brafman tells The Creators Project. "My research into these alchemical techniques and art practices led me to colleagues in the Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute, and it became clear that complementing the GRI rare alchemy books were 2000 years of art objects displaying the application of alchemical techniques (and metaphorical expression) in painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and manuscript illumination."

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Hermes Trismegistos Teaching Ptolemy the World System (Eastern Mediterranean), ca. 500–600. Silver plate; lent by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Art of Alchemy illustrates how artists today continue to embody the same principles as alchemists of yore. In a sense, not much has changed, as artists are still exploring new ways that individual properties can interact, mix together, and transform into new pieces of matter.

"While our show is less interested in the specifically spiritual and religious aspects of alchemical history, the history of alchemy is essentially a history of seekers: that is, experimenters seeking after the secrets of nature and looking for ways to bend natural matter to the will of the human imagination, for the creation of art as well as the perfection of the body," Brafman explains. "It was alchemical seekers who discovered and invented concrete, oil paints, inks, and pharmaceutical medicines—and the urge to understand and imitate has never been so strong as it is today, in our new digital age of liquid crystals, plastics and other synthetics."

Though alchemy is often stigmatized as pseudo-science today, Brafmam maintains that in the past, "Alchemy was a mainstream technology that has been essential to human expression for thousands of years around the globe—and almost all the objects we needed to illustrate this were right here in Los Angeles."

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Mercury by Johann Gregor van der Schardt (Netherlandish, ca. 1530–after 1581), ca. 1570–1580. Bronze; lent by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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The Chemical Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite by Matthaus Merian the Elder (Swiss, 1593–1650). Engraving in Michael Maier, Scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt, 1687), pp. 96–97, the Getty Research Institute

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Allegory of Distillation by Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle Nove (Neapolitan, active ca. 1606). Watercolor in Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle Nove, [Book of Alchemical Formulas] (Naples, 1606), pp. 6-7, the Getty Research Institute

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The Body as Alchemical Laboratory. Engraving in Joachim Becher, Physica subterranea (Leipzig, 1738), frontispiece, the Getty Research Institute

The Art of Alchemy is on view at the Getty Research Institute through February 12, 2017; in conjunction with The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts, on view through January 1, 2017 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center; and The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena, on view through January 8, 2017 at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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