symbolism

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.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

Early Influences: Schiele and Klimt by Chris Hall

Egon Schiele,  Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock , 1913

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock, 1913

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (along with Edvard Munch) heavily influenced my drawing during my first two years as a student at the University of Georgia.  In 1995 I even filled an entire sketch book copying Egon Schiele’s work.  I fell in love with their line work which is searching, sensual, and organic, like the very fiber of life.  Below is a little about Schiele and Klimt.  Sometime later I will devote an entire blog post to Edvard Munch.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter born in 1890.  His work is known for its intensity and its expression of raw sexuality.  His figure drawings and paintings, many of them self-portraits, often have twisted body shapes defined by expressive contour lines.  The work is often suggestive of sex, death, and the grotesque, with a disturbing eroticism bordering on the pornographic.  In 1907 Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt as a mentor, who was impressed with his work enough to help him secure exhibitions and patrons.  As a young artist-bohemian, he lived an unconventional lifestyle that led him to being driven out of one town and being imprisoned in another.  Eventually Schiele decided to settle down and marry Edith Harms in 1915, but three days later he was conscripted for the Austrian Army as the First World War exploded across the continent.  Schiele was lucky to get a reasonably comfortable assignment as guard and clerk in a POW camp in Prague, and Edith was allowed to follow him.  But in the fall of 1918, tragedy came in the form of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which would kill over 20,000,000 people.  First it would take Edith’s life, and then three days later, Egon Schiele’s.  He was 28.  Schiele’s last drawing is of his dying wife.  

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter born in 1862.  His work is known for its frank eroticism and decorative elements, often incorporating gold leaf.  The subject of much of his work is women, often in shown in allegorical, symbolist, mythic, and erotic circumstances.  He would also make landscapes and portraiture as well.  Klimt kept his life private, but it was a life marked by sexual hedonism.  He would often dress in a robe and sandals, wearing no undergarments underneath.  Klimt would have many mistresses and would father 14 children.  Early in his career Klimt received many public art commissions, but he would stop taking the commissions after his three paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized for being pornographic.  These three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were later destroyed by retreating Nazi SS forces in May of 1945.  Klimt, like Schiele, would die in 1918, from complications brought on by the Spanish Flu.

Revisiting the Moby Dick Paintings by Chris Hall

Between 1997 and 1998, and again in 2006, I made several paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I had just read Moby Dick for the first time in 1997, after reading that it was a favorite among the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Pollock and Motherwell.  Moby Dick had a dramatic effect on me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.  These are some behind the scenes commentary on the creation and meaning of some of the work:

1.  In the first one, Tashtego (2007), I discovered the whale and bird (which the character Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod in the closing scene) by accident.  It was part of my Divination Series, a series of 16 collages where I tore up pieces of paper, photocopies of pages from a book on Marc Chagall, actually, and glued the pieces down randomly in order to discover subject matter and composition.  

2.  Confrontation (2007) came next.  It is pretty much a straight forward symbolist piece.  Like Tashtego, and many of my other works from this time, my subject matter and composition was not pre-determined.  Once again, I discovered the whale by accident.  I was painting the ground of the composition for the skinned horse to walk on, and somehow it transformed itself into the specter of the whale.  It is one of my many visionary pieces from this time, and the meaning of this work is an enigma, even to me.

3.  The portrait of Ahab (1998) follows. Ahab is presented as a contorted and painful figure, with the ever-present eye of the whale figuring behind him.  In my hot-blooded youthful ignorance, I had come to identify somewhat with Ahab and his madness.  After some meditation I realized that this was unhealthy.  If you identify with an archetype, your fate becomes a self fulfilled prophecy.  I would later decide that I did not want to go down like Ahab.

4.  The Whale (1998) is a straight up Expressionist painting.  It is a bloody revenge fantasy, from the point of view of Ahab, who wanted to revisit violence on the world for its evils and for mankind’s suffering, revenge on that nameless thing that the White Whale had come to symbolize for him.  On the tail of the whale, the Pequod makes its appearance, and foreshadowing the Pequod’s demise, the whale’s flipper transforms itself into a tombstone.  

5.  The Whale Hunt (1998) closes out the Moby Dick paintings of 1997-1998.  If The Whale is hot with subjective energy, the point of view of Ahab, then The Whale Hunt is the outsider, universal perspective.  The turbulent white sea brings forth notions of the universe as sublime, indifferent nihilism.  The churning sea is filled with seman (sperm and egg feature in the composition), milk, and blood . . . it is the source of life, and in the case of the Pequod’s crew, the source of death.  The Pequod makes its appearance in the upper left, and opposite the Pequod is the Sun (which doubles as the previously mentioned egg).  The Pequod is sinking; it is being consumed by the sea and the indifferent all devouring universe.  No one gets out alive.  But where is the whale?  The whale is there, because the whale symbolizes the universe, it makes up the entire painting.  The Sun/Egg serves as the all seeing eye of the whale.  

6.  For Ahab Monomaniac (2006) I thought I would once again revisit Ahab, from a more sober, mature perspective.  Somehow I lost my way, and the result is a bit of humor.  It is critical of Ahab (and by extension, my youthful self).  At the time I was learning how to deal with suffering and pain with a sense of humor.  If Ahab had developed a sense of humor, Moby Dick would have ended very differently.  

7.  Ocean #9 (2006) is another sober, mature look at the subject. I had wanted to illustrate Moby Dick, without illustrating its narrative elements.  What I decided on was to do a series of works illustrating the moods of some of the chapters, and have this reflected in psychological seascapes.  The composition of each of the works was pretty similar, the point of view forward from the masthead of the vast and open sea.