❉ This is the fourth in a series of blogs that discuss diagrams and the diagrammatic format, especially in relation to fine art. I recently completed my PhD on this subject at Kyoto city University of the Arts, Japan's oldest Art School.
Feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly if you'd like any more information on life as an artist in Japan, what a PhD in Fine Art involves, applying for the Japanese Government Monbusho Scholarship program (MEXT), or to talk about diagrams and diagrammatic art in general.
The word alchemy has Arabic origins, and like other English 'al' words: algebra, algorithm, albatross and alcohol, they all incorporate the Arabic definite article 'al', meaning 'the', and alchemy is derived from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā’ (الكيمياء) meaning 'the philosophers stone'.
However alchemy itself has a rich and convoluted history which predates its Arabic influences, and spans some 4000 years. Similar philosophical systems appear to have arisen independently on three different continents, giving rise to Chinese, Indian and the Western alchemy, the latter of which can be traced from its origins in Greco-Roman Egypt via the Islamic world to Medieval Europe.
Figure 1: Matthäus Merian, Tabula Smaragdina (The emerald tablet)
first published 1618, Engraving, size unknown.
By the end of the middle ages in Europe, Western Alchemy had adopted the diagrammatic format as its medium of choice, and the early fifteenth century witnessed the rapid emergence of the alchemical diagram as a means of codifying, arranging and recording alchemical transmutations.
What had previously been a text dominated field of allegory, explication and word-play was rapidly overtaken by a panoply of symbolic forms drawn from ancient myth and fable. Alchemical artists worked to create intricate networks of obtuse symbols as landscapes, all of which reference alchemy's rich, international, cultural history.
The qualities of the diagram were perfectly suited to an alchemical arts that stressed the fluid nature of both concept and form, and did so in a style of learned authority and secrecy. Over the following two centuries the success of alchemical diagrams meant that they no longer merely punctuated alchemical texts but were compiled in to series in their own right, to depict the principles governing the discipline.
Text became relegated to title, label and caption, and certain alchemical treatise such as The Silent Book (Mutus Liber, La Rochelle, 1677) were composed entirely of emblematic images, diagrammatically outlining the processes involved in manufacturing the philosophers stone, the base matter from which all other materials could be created.
Figure 2: Selected plates from Mutus Liber, first published in 1677.
The authors name was given as Altus, a pseudonym.
No less a figure than Isaac Newton devoted a great deal of his time to the study of alchemy, amassing a collection of 169 books on the topic within his personal library, as well as leaving behind hundreds of his own unpublished notes relating to the subject. In 1942 the economist John Maynard Keynes purchased and studied a large number of Newton's papers, leading him to proclaim that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians".
Fig. 3: Isaac Newton (1643 - 1723), copy of a diagram of the Philosopher's Stone, the Holy Grail of alchemy
( Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton on permanent deposit at the
Dibner Institute and Burndy Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts )
The diagrams of alchemy are a chaotic system of references and a constantly changing matrix of symbols and code names for arcane substances and experiments. According to the motto of the Rosicrucian Michael Maier, the goal of alchemy was “to reach the intellect via the senses”, as depicted by the motif of the hermaphrodite.
Figure 4: Michael Maiers, emblem plate number 38, Atalanta Fugiens, 1617
This figure represents a mix of sensual stimulus (Aphrodite) and intellectual appeal (Hermes), an approach aiming to provoke man’s intuitive insights in to the essential connections, rather than his discursive ability, which was largely held to be a destructive force.
This is an interesting reversal of the base premise of my 2014 thesis 'Romantic Objectivism', which proposes that modern and contemporary diagrammatic art attempts to reach the senses via the intellect, or rather the subjective via the objective visual language of science. The goal, however, of triggering intuitive insights in to deep and essential connections remains the same.
The transmutations of alchemy are said to occur in both the external world of matter and the internal psychological world of the psyche.
The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist C.G. Jung proposed that “The alchemical operations were real, only this reality was not physical but psychological. Alchemy represents the projection of a drama both cosmic and spiritual in laboratory terms. The opus magnum [“great work”] had two aims: the rescue of the human soul, and the salvation of the cosmos.”
This was alchemy on a grand and ambitious scale, and European alchemy marks the start of an explosive growth of diagram production in the west, driven by a human desire to create meaning and order within our shared and subjective experience of reality.
Kjell Hellesøe's translation of a 20th century French commentary on the Mutus Liber can be found here: http://hermetic.com/caduceus/articles/1/3/mutus-liber.html
Dr. Michael Whittle
British artist and researcher