Napoleon Bonaparte

Benny and Friends by Chris Hall

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998.  As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me.  Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters.  I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But still this fascination persists.  That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil.  But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions.  I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead.  Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still.  Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time.  Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.  

Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas.  In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were.  I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me.  It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating.  Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein.  Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant.  And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals.  This is rich territory to explore.  I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini.  Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.

Some Notes on the History of Paint by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

Indian Yellow 2.jpg

Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

Ultramarine 4.jpg

The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.

Francisco Goya by Chris Hall

Francisco Goya,  Self Portrait , 1795.

Francisco Goya, Self Portrait, 1795.

Francisco Goya was a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker, often regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns.  He was a court painter to the Spanish aristocracy, all while secretly holding liberal, republican beliefs.  Of more interest, however, are the imaginative works he painted for himself, which, as Goya grew older, became more and more satirical, macabre, and grotesque.  

Goya was born in Fuendetodos, Aragón, Spain, on 30 March 1746.  As a young man, he moved to Madrid, and then to Italy to study art.  After some initial difficulty and a period of hard work, Goya managed to become a popular portrait painter, and in 1786, secured himself a salaried position as a court painter to Charles III of Spain.  Goya was retained when two years later, Charles the IV succeeded to the throne.  In 1789, the revolution erupted in France, and discussions of republicanism was in the air in Spain.  Goya was a liberal and was sympathetic toward republicanism, but he also needed his job as a portrait painter to support his family.  

Goya kept his opinions to himself, although he sometimes portrayed his subjects in an unflattering light.  His painting of Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800), for instance, is thought to be something of a social satire.  Charles IV was generally thought to be weak and corrupt.  His wife, Louisa was thought to be the real power behind the throne.  Goya painted Louisa as the central focal point of the painting.  The family stands before a painting depicting Lot and his daughters, echoing the idea of aristocratic corruption and moral decay.  To the back and left, hidden in the shadow, Goya painted himself painting and silently judging his patrons.

Sometime late in 1792, Goya contracted a serious illness (the exact nature of which is unknown) which left Goya deaf.  He had a physical and mental breakdown as a result and became withdrawn and introspective.  A contemporary reported, "The noises in his head and deafness aren’t improving, yet his vision is much better and he is back in control of his balance." These symptoms are typical of Ménière's disease, although many also suspect the cumulative effects of lead poisoning.  Goya was known to have used a massive amount of lead white in his paintings, both as a primary color and as a canvas primer. 

During his convalescence, he undertook a series of experimental paintings.  These paintings are decidedly darker from his earlier work, the horrific stuff of nightmares.  Paintings such as The Yard of the Madhouse suggest themes of loneliness, fear, and social alienation, while other works are undisguised sharp social criticisms.  These works would culminate in his series of 80 aquatinted etchings, Los Caprichos, published in 1799.  Goya described the work as "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”  Shortly after being published, Goya withdrew Los Caprichos, for fear of a backlash from the Inquisition, which was still active in Spain.

In 1800, Goya completed two of his most famous paintings, The Clothed Maja, and The Nude Maja.  These life-size paintings depict the same woman in the same pose, one clothed and one nude.  Nudity was tolerated when it referred to allegorical or mythological subjects, but without this pretense, Goya's painting was considered profane.  The Nude Maja is also considered the first painting in Western Art to show pubic hair.  The two paintings were never shown in public; they were owned by the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy.  When Godoy fell from power in 1808, he was exiled and all his property was seized.  The Inquisition confiscated the paintings, because of their “obscenity.”

In 1808, French forces under Napoleon invaded Spain, leading to the Peninsular War of 1808 – 1814.  Napoleon set up his brother, Joseph, as the new king.  Goya kept neutral during the fighting.  He was a Spanish patriot, but also a republican, hoping Napoleon would bring social and political reforms.  Goya took a loyalty oath and became the new court painter for Joseph I. 

During the 1810's Goya created a new set of 82 aquatinted etchings titled The Disasters of War.  These works, while politically ambivalent (they condemn atrocities committed by both Spanish rebels and the French), are thought to be a protest against all war and violence in general.  The prints document events from the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, through the Peninsular War, and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the reintroduction of the Inquisition in 1814.  The prints are, at times, graphic and disturbing in their depiction of battlefield horrors, and represent Goya's outraged conscience in the face of death and destruction.  The Disasters of War was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya's death.  It seems likely that Goya considered it politically unsafe to release them, as the prints criticizes both the French and the restored Bourbons.  

After the restoration of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, in 1814, Goya denied any involvement with the French.  In 1819, Goya retired to a country house outside of Madrid.  The house was known as the Quinta del Sordo, which means “House of the Deaf Man.”  It was named after its previous owner, though it is something of a strange coincidence that Goya was also deaf.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Sabbath, c 1823

After the Napoleonic Wars and the even more repressive monarchy of Ferdinand VII, Goya became an embittered man and developed a bleak outlook toward mankind.  This attitude, and his growing fear of insanity, is reflected in his series of so called Black Paintings, created between 1819 and 1823.  These paintings, fourteen works in total, were painted directly onto the walls of the house.  Because these works are thought to portray Goya's growing sense of panic, terror, and hysteria, the Black Paintings are sometimes thought of as a precursor of the Expressionist movement in the early 20th century.

In 1824, Goya, disgusted with Spain, moved to France, where he would die of a stroke four years later in 1828, age 82.  He left Quinta del Sordo, and the Black Paintings contained within it, to the care of his grandson, Mariano Goya.  In 1874, the slow process of removing the Black Paintings and transferring them to canvas was started.  In 1881 they found a new home, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Alchemy and Art by Chris Hall

Painting is not about the product, but about the process – the philosophy that drives my life. Elin Pendleton


I’ve always thought there to be a lot of parallels between Alchemy and Art, particularly painting.  Art starts as an idea, an intangible thing, pulled from the air.  It is struck with the electricity of the mind and forged in the fire of the heart.  The idea flows hot from the body, down the arms to the hands, charging the paintbrush with its task.  This is the catalyst, meeting the plastic medium, oil paint in liquid form.  Ideas are mutable, and so is wet paint.  As the mind cools, so does the paint and it begins to dry, transforming itself into a solid, idea incarnate.   This is how art is made.  This is the painting process.  

Art also has parallels to Alchemy in that the Alchemist’s true goal was spiritual enlightenment (the Philosopher’s Stone) through a process of self discovery.  Transmuting gold from lead was a byproduct of the process.  Similarly, the Artist can use the art making process to obtain spiritual growth and enlightenment, with the byproduct being a work of art.  The Alchemist’s and Artist’s true work, then, is “Transmuting the lead of matter / Into bullets of spiritual gold.”   (From Alex Grey’s poem “The Seer”).

The word alchemy is from Arabic, originally ‘Al-khemet’ which means “from Egypt,” where Alchemy was originally practiced.  Egypt was once known as “Khemet” in ancient times, which means “Black Land,” due to the fertile soil found along the banks of the Nile River.  This is also where Alchemy got labeled as a “Black Art.”  Alchemy is traditionally thought to have been invented by the Egyptian god Thoth, the founder of science, religion, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, medicine, and magic.  We know that Cleopatra was a practicing Alchemist; among her personal affects were manuscripts pertaining to the transformation of base metal to gold.  Over the millennia Alchemy would adopt aspects of Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, the Jewish Cabbala, Arabic science, numerology, and astrology.  Famous alchemists have included the likes of; Pythagoras, Galileo, Da-vinci, Issac Newton, and Napoleon.  From its ancient occult origins, Alchemy would become the basis of modern day Chemistry and Jungian Psychoanalysis.

Besides the promise of gold, alchemy also promised the possibility of creating a healing substance called the Elixir of Life, able to cure all diseases, and, if pure enough, the possibility of immortality.  The famous alchemist St. Germaine is reputed to have found the Elixir of Life and to have benefited from its use, living over three hundred years.  Gold and immortality, however, are only a byproduct.  The Philosopher’s Stone is the real goal of the spiritually minded alchemist.  The Philosopher’s Stone brought with it spiritual purification and perfection of the soul.  Gold, being considered the purest of all elements, was valued more for what it represented symbolically than what it represented as monetary value. When gold is successfully manufactured, it is only the incidental byproduct of a much more successful experiment, the manufacture of the Philosopher’s Stone, and purification of the soul.   Success in the physical realm of existence meant success in the spiritual realm as well.  Gold becomes the physical proof that the Alchemist’s quest was successful.  

To prevent the abuse of Alchemy for selfish means and to also protect themselves against persecution from the Church, Alchemical manuscripts were often encoded or written in riddles.  In some cases these Alchemical manuscripts are not even written out, but drawn as a series of symbolic illustrations.  An example of the later would the legendary “Book with No Words,” reputed to be so complex in its symbolism, that it would take two lifetimes to master, one to decipher, and one to understand.  

To obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, one had to use the seven basic Alchemical processes, in three different stages. Each process has its own symbolic, psychological, spiritual, and physical manifestations. The original Alchemists believed that all matter was divisible into the pure elements of fire, air, water, and earth.  The process of manipulating matter through these four elements mirrored the process spiritual purification, which would lead to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and enlightenment.

Nigredo is the first stage on the Alchemical path, and encompasses the first two processes of Calcinatio and Solutio.  Nigredo means ‘blackening.’  Characterized by breaking down matter, the Alchemist is compelled to look deep within themselves and destroy the parts of the ego that would be in the way of inner growth.  Nigredo begins as we truly and sincerely begin to walk the path of transformation. The first step faced by all who desire to know themselves is to face the ego, and in particular, its means sacrifice, of sabotaging our desire for immediate worldly success.  Psychologically, Nigredo is a process of suffering.  Depression is a common occurrence.

Calcinatio- Symbolic of fire, it is literally the process of heating or burning.  A solid can be subjected to intense heat in order to drive off water and any other parts that may volatize, producing a fine, dry powder.  Another example would be to add water to quicklime (plaster of paris).  The water starts a chemical reaction that produces heat. Alchemists believed that quicklime contained hidden fire that was only activated by water.  Alchemists could also use sulfuric acid to burn into matter in the Calcinatio process.  Calcinatio is used in encaustic painting, when the solid encaustic wax is heated into a liquid and then mixed with pigment in order to paint.  The infusing of fire can be seen symbolically as a life force, the divine spark. Burning can also be seen as a purification rite, ridding a substance of impurities.  Calcinatio occurs naturally in life as a process where our egos are gradually worn down by the inevitable challenges in life.  Ideally, in the spiritual path, one hastens the Calcinatio process, rather than letting it be drawn out over the course of a whole life.  Through Calcinatio, stubbornness, pride, and arrogance are worn down.  Psychologically, the process relates to the cleansing of the body and the destruction of the ego, as well as burning away all the excesses gained from over-indulgence.  In Alchemical symbolism this process is sometimes represented by bringing down a tyrannical king. 

Solutio- Dealing with processes pertaining to water or any physical process producing a liquid, Solutio can transform a solid to liquid form, a solution or a suspension.  Solutio is used by painters when they mix raw pigment into a solution or when they cut thick paint with a medium.  Water is thought of physically as prima materia, the first matter.  Symbolically it is shown as the womb, and the process of Solutio as returning matter to the womb for rebirth.  In many myths water is the original matter from which the world is created.  Taken further, science shows today that all living life came from the sea and the human body is composed primarily of water.  In Solutio, the Alchemist symbolically drowns.  Psychologically this stage represents a deep encounter with our subconscious mind.  Carl Jung would use Alchemical symbolism to develop his ideas of the collective unconscious.  Through Solutio, the Alchemist lets go of control and allows the surfacing of buried material.  This stage is often characterized by emotions of grief, as the Alchemist allow themselves to relive painful incidents from the past.

Albedo means ‘whitening’. Albedo is the second stage on the Alchemist’s path.  If Nigredo is destruction of the ego and death by drowning, then Albedo prepares the Alchemist for rebirth.  Albedo involves the creation of division, necessary for the further unification of opposites.  Albedo also refers to the inner light that arises in the face of genuine suffering brought about through Nigredo.  The white dove is a common symbol for this stage.  Albedo corresponds to the processes of Separatio, Conjunctio, Mortificatio, and Sublimatio.  In Albedo the Alchemist creates coherence and clarity via division into opposites, and then, by re-unifying these opposites, becomes reborn.  

Separatio- Separatio is a purging process, literally the separation of composite matter into its more useful and pure parts.  An example of this would be the separation of gasoline from crude oil or metals from its crude ore either by heating, pulverizing, or any other chemical process.  Filtration, evaporation, and operations using a centrifuge are also classic examples of this process.  In many myths of creation, order is pulled out from a chaos of mismatched elements.  Separatio is also seen as the purging of unwanted bad habits.  Psychologically, Separatio refers to the need to make our thoughts and emotions more distinct by isolating them from other thoughts and emotions.  This stage represents the need to focus on what has been revealed in us after Nigredo, so we can get clear on what precisely needs to be given attention, and what needs to be purged.  The process of Separatio is entirely concerned with the need to both see and take responsibility for the darker aspects within ourselves.  A common symbol for this process is the black crow, which in its color denotes the dying away of the false through Nigredo, as well as the positive possibilities for the future symbolized by the crow’s capacity to fly.  

Conjunctio- This is both the process of joining two unlike and opposite substances and the resulting product of a third substance of altogether different properties.  It is mainly through this process that the groundwork was laid for modern chemistry, nuclear physics, and modern psychoanalysis of unconscious imagery.  Conjunctio occurs when the Artist mixes their paint.  Like Aristotle, the alchemists believed that there must be a balance in all things. They concerned themselves with the fine lines between such things as courage and foolhardiness, prudence and miserliness, passion and fanaticism. By recognizing these lines both internally and chemically, perfection (the Philosopher's Stone) could be found. In the end, it is the balance of unlike things and a union of opposites that the alchemists sought.  The symbol most often used to express this ideal was the hermaphrodite. When consulting an old manuscript and the symbol of the hermaphrodite appeared, then it was shown that a union of opposites was required, either in process or chemical.  For example, fire (Calcinatio) and water (Solutio), or sulphur (fire) and mercury (water).   Conjunctio is also symbolized by the sexual union of male and female.  Just as when a man and woman copulate, a new being is born completely different from its parents.  Indeed, the eastern Alchemists of India went so far as to lose the external chemical quest and to pursue an internal quest for spiritual purity with the use of ritualized sex.  But to most Alchemists, the masculine and the feminine are not principles determined by sex or gender. It is mainly meant as a guide to find a complimenting essence.  Alchemical symbolism sometimes refers to this as the marriage of the Sun (spirit, masculine) and the Moon (soul, feminine).  The Alchemists referred to this union as the “Marriage of the King and Queen,” and they referred to the result of the Conjunctio as the "Philosopher's Child" or "Lesser Stone." 

Mortificatio (or Putreficatio) - Perhaps the strangest of the alchemical processes, it pertains to death and rotting.  In Mortificatio the matter in question is symbolically seem as tortured and killed by various alchemical operations.  It is also symbolic of penance or just punishment. It was not at all seen as cruel and mean spirited.  Saint Augustine would say, ''Punishment, when deserved, is Love.”  Mortificatio is the next logical step.  Literally it is the process of rotting.  Organic elements would be left to decompose in a controlled environment.  Chemically the process is similar to fermentation.  Another example of this would be a compost heap.  Symbolically the process is associated with psychological darkness, mutilation, and defeat.  It is symbolized in St. John of the Cross's poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Spiritually, this refers to a kind of inner death process in which old, discarded elements of the personality are allowed to rot and decompose.  This process can involve difficult mental states such as depression.  Mortificatio is followed by a stage of rebirth in a process called Sublimatio.  

Sublimatio (or Distillation) - Sublimatio is a process pertaining to air and the separation of substances.  It is derived by the physical process of heating matter and having it pass directly into a gas state. When this is done the gas ascends to the top of the vessel where it reconstitutes in an upper cooling region.  It has a long history, being used for the production of such things as alcohol and gasoline.  Sublimatio is an elevating process, symbolic of giving up the ghost and the shedding of impurities.  It is a process of purification and an internal quest for spiritual perfection.  Here, the Alchemist undergoes a type of rebirth resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements that no longer serve spiritual evolution.  Sublimatio can be achieved through many activities such as intense prayer, break down of the personality, and deep meditation.  The process is symbolized in illustration with ladders, stairs, flying, and mountains, anything that suggests ascending.  Psychologically, Sublimatio does not result in escapism, but rather in being able to deal with seemingly mundane things with integrity.  A common Alchemical symbol for the result of Sublimatio is the Green Lion eating the Sun.  It suggests a healthy triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.  Sublimatio is necessary to ensure no impurities from the inflated ego are incorporated into the next and final stage.  

Rubedo, meaning ‘reddening’, is the final stage. Whereas Nigredo and Albedo were concerned with the chaotic void and division, Rubedo is entirely concerned with unity, with the result of this unity being the Philosopher’s Stone.   However, this wholeness is not a mere return to the Primal state.  Rather, we re-capture the primal unity of the child-like state, while at the same time achieving something much more, the mature wisdom of a sage.  The cycle of death and rebirth is finally broken.

Coagulatio (or Greater Conjunctio) - Belonging to the symbolic process of Earth, Coagulatio results from the combination of Fire, Water, and Air.  Physically, it is the process of converting other matter into a solid.  Cooling a liquid can produce a solid, hence water to ice.  A solid that has been dissolved into a solvent will reappear when the liquid part has evaporated, hence salt from salt water.  Heat can also produce a solid, such as the coagulation of the egg in a pan when fried.  Coagulatio occurs in the drying of paint.  On a symbolic level to produce a solid is to fix an ego, to localize and make concrete an identity, and manifest in the flesh.  Several creation myths describe how dry land and creatures sprung from the waters of an endless sea.  Coagulatio is the ultimate marriage of Heaven and Hell and is the pinnacle point in the Alchemist’s career.  The end result is the Philosopher’s Stone, and is often symbolized by the Phoenix, the bird that has arisen from the ashes.   Coagulatio, when properly performed, is a return to the Garden of Eden; it means existence on a higher level and being in tune with the divine mind.  In other traditions it is referred to as Enlightenment, or Nirvana.  

In closing, I hope that I have adequately explained the many physical and psychological parallels between Alchemy and Art.  I find the process of making Art to be spiritually rewarding.  It is a path of self discovery that I hope will continue to pay dividends into the future.  Halfway down my Alchemical – Spiritual journey in life, I believe I am, appropriately, somewhere in the middle stages, around Conjunctio.  It is a journey that can be spiritually taxing at times, which is a challenge for me, as I am apparently a tough study; I have gone through the painful Nigredo stage at least half a dozen times or more.  Still, I have every reason to be optimistic that I might just someday be lucky enough to find the Artistic equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, if I continue to create and make Art.

Finished on my 39th birthday, 5:56 AM, December 16th 2014.