What alchemy and art have in common

When alchemy meets art

Dreaming of a voyage to the moon

Joe Ramirez, a Berlin-based US artist opens the exhibition "Alchemy. The Great Art" with his film installation inspired by the Sistine Chapel. He developed a technique where paintings are projected onto gilded wooden panels. At its center is "Somnium," a gold disk weighing 200 kilos, named after a text written by scientist and astronomer Johannes Kepler who was dreaming of a voyage to the moon.

When alchemy meets art


Alchemists search for universal solutions like the legendary panacea. The mythical universal remedy was believed to cure all kinds of diseases. The term goes back to a daughter of Asklepios, the Greek God of healing. Whether or not panacea was once kept in this little 17th century bottle made of ruby glass, is hard to say.

When alchemy meets art

Magical etchings

This silver relief dated to the sixth century shows Hermes Trismegistos, a deity in which the Greek God Hermes and the Egyptian God Thot were fused. Until recent times, it was actually believed that a person called Hermes Trismegistos really existed, and that he was the author of the hermetical writings that describe the formation of the earth, the cosmos and the formulation of divine wisdom.

When alchemy meets art

Early chemists

Some alchemists resorted to magical formulas linking natural sciences to occultism. Many of the early alchemists, however, rather worked like pharmacists or chemists as this watercolor of the 17th century illustrates. The main focus was on extractive metallurgy, particularly of gold.

When alchemy meets art

An effervescent source of quicksilver

Alchemists used quicksilver in order to refine metals. It was believed that silver could be produced by adding quicksilver to copper. Next to sulfur and salt, quicksilver was one of the three basic elements of medieval alchemy. This painting dated back to ca. 1770 shows how the much sought-after element quicksilver flows from a source - thanks to the semen of Hindu deity Shiva.

When alchemy meets art

'The Alchemist' in art

Whereas alchemy inspired art, the picture language of art in turn shaped our image of alchemy. In 1860, Carl Spitzweg created the painting "The Alchemist," a humorous portrait in Biedermeier style. As a trained pharmacist, Spitzweg knew very well what he was painting. He portrayed real and imaginary patients already during his studies.

When alchemy meets art

Doctor Faustus

This etching by Rembrandt dated to 1652 shows a scholar working in his study. A later work list, however, mentions the name "Doctor Faustus." So it's quite possible that Goethe had this etching in mind when he wrote his literary masterwork "Faust," which features alchemist myths of a Gold-like creator who formed the world in line with his ideas.

When alchemy meets art

The theory of colors

French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul wasn't only interested in the elements, but also in colors. His work "The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors" greatly contributed to the theory of colors. Out of the three basic colors red, yellow and blue, Chevreul developed a color circle consisting of 23 mixed colors for each basic color.

When alchemy meets art

A new perspective on flora and fauna

German photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke (1898-1983) was deeply fascinated by animals and plants, approaching his elaborate photos with a lot of scientific curiosity. By applying techniques like multiple exposure and montage, fragmentation and collage, Hajek-Halke created disturbing pictures that play with reality.

When alchemy meets art

Figurative matter

Natascha Sonnenschein refers to her scanographies as alchemist art. She renders the non-visible world visible by combining analog and digital techniques. This carbon print of 2001 is called "Paradies der Künstlichkeit" (Paradise of Artificiality). The artist holds workshops in alchemist communication, in which she helps the participants to find and activate their own energy sources.

When alchemy meets art

Urine behind glass

Here, artist Sarah Schönfeld presents what remains after a long night in the legendary Berlin club Berghain: urine. She spent entire weeks asking partygoers for urine contributions that she subsequently treated with various chemicals until finally exhibiting the result in a showcase. "Hero's Journey (Lamp)" is part of the alchemy show running from April 6 to July 23, 2017, in Berlin.

Alchemists and artists alike are highly ingenious, transforming materials and creating their own worlds and realities. A Berlin show now throws some light on how they have mutually inspired each other over centuries.

In a way, they are artists. That's the topic explored by the large-scale exhibition "Alchemy. The Great Art," which runs from April 6 to July 23, 2017, in Berlin's Kulturforum.

The foreword of the exhibition's program explains that alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice. Berlin's Kulturforum can be seen as predestined location for such a show, as the Berlin state museums and the Berlin state library contain a myriad of items representing 3,000 years of art and cultural history. The exhibition was also supplemented by loans from international institutions.

From Ancient Egypt to Joseph Beuys

On show are 200 exhibits, ranging from items of Ancient Egyptian temples and writings of the early modern era to works of contemporary artists including Anselm Kiefer, Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys. As the permanent transformation of materials is part of Beuys' work, he actually sees himself as part of the alchemist tradition. 

Alchemy, the art of metallurgy

For thousands of years, alchemists have searched for the stone of the wise, a technique for transforming raw metals into precious ones, particularly gold. 

According to a legend, the deity Hermes Trismegistos engraved the formula for the creation of the stone of the wise into an emerald panel 2,500 years ago. According to that formula, the legendary stone of the wise was to be created by combining the four basic elements - namely fire, water, earth and air - with quicksilver, sulfur and salt.

The term "alchemy" itself originated in Ancient Greece and signified something like "metal casting." During the Middle Ages, alchemy was referred to as "Ars Magna" in Europe. Not surprisingly therefore, the "great art" was also seen as serving artistic endeavors. The mysterious stories surrounding alchemists portray them either as cranky and crazy, or as wise and omniscient.

Berlin's Kulturforum presents "Alchemy. The Great Art" until July 23, 2017

Even if nowadays they are much ridiculed for their superstitious spirituality, alchemists were once the precursors of modern chemistry and pharmacology.

Creation, creator and creature

The exhibition "Alchemy. The Great Art" is divided in three sections showing how alchemists and artists have mutually influenced and enriched each other.

The section "Creation" focuses on the origins of alchemy, as well as the influence of alchemist techniques on art. The section "Creator" illustrates the influence of alchemists, and their pursuit of creative power. The section "Creature" presents the successful transformation of raw materials into precious materials, as well as the creation of artworks.

Click through the gallery above to see a selection of the works on show at the exhibition.

Related Subjects