Alchemical Art - the Precursor to Surrealism
When a painting is described as “dreamy,” the piece in question is often a surrealist work known for its hypnotic automatism. The surrealist era, however, was not the first to achieve this dreamy style. Surrealism’s dreamy and eccentric techniques, color palettes, and symbols originate from our early representations of science and chemistry. Our understanding of art throughout history is traditionally conceptualized within the realm of eras, viewing its evolution through chronological, blocky chunks. Importantly, the art of any given era represents the scientific knowledge of that age.
The alchemical arts date back as far as between the first and third centuries AD, but its purpose within mysticism and the quest for renewable gold began in the 1300s. Alchemical art was a process that utilized the experimentation and observation of simple metals like sulfur and mercury manifest alongside inner exploration and development. In this time period, the sciences were considered to still be an artistic and spiritual endeavor. In Medieval Europe, alchemy was referred to as “The Great Art.” because it acted as an intersection between the arts, sciences, and cultural expression.
By modern standards, alchemy is not a science because the testing conducted by these alchemists was not grounded in sound research, method, or theory. Rather, the singular goal of alchemy was to discover a hypothetical, fantastical elixir with supernatural properties. However, alchemy did inspire initial efforts to identify and understand elements and compounds. Alchemy embraced multiple disciplines as it continued to develop, and the art containing their formulas frequently alluded to mysticism, astrology, and philosophy.
In alchemical art, each piece contained the formulas for mythical compounds hidden within, covertly encoded into the art according to the unique system of each alchemist. These alchemists kept their work secret because the singular goal for each alchemist was to create the Philosopher’s Stone, which was believed to promise immortality. Even though this was their common goal, they nonetheless worked to create medicines and pigments outside of the search for the Stone. The vermillion colors used during the medieval ages were frequently produced in alchemists’ labs. Alchemists created the color using sulfur and mercury by combining the two over intense heat. When ground, the deep red becomes visible. A similar process was used to create the mosaic gold hue commonly found in early manuscripts and scriptures.
An alchemist’s drawings were used as a code aimed at concealing knowledge from those who were deemed “unworthy” of understanding the sacred quest to manipulate the fabric of natural law. While alchemists hid their work to maintain secrecy, they also concealed their efforts because alchemy was illegal in Europe. European regimes took the quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” so seriously that it came with the consequence of death if caught. This iron-fist approach to alchemy stemmed from concerns about the gold standard, as the discovery of an infinite gold supply would have crippled the entire continent’s economy.
Each art piece contained the formulas for different compounds hidden within them, and each alchemist had their own symbols, techniques, and codes for hiding their work. Color selection was almost as crucial to an alchemist’s code as the imagery itself. Shrouding colorful concealers on top of the images was often the last line of defense against discovery. Here, color theory played a massive role—even before the term was coined. Often, the colors for the figures would be determined by whatever elements an alchemist used in a reaction. Pigments would be mixed just short of the true color that alluded to an element to throw a snooping alchemist off course.
Larry Principe, a professor of the History of Science and Technology at Harvard, explains the patterns within these codes by discussing early representations of the formula used to dissolve gold. Today, we know the process involves combining nitric acid and ammonium chloride to form a solvent, in which the gold was submerged. However, an alchemist would have turned each element and action into a symbol. Ammonium chloride as a solid appears white, so an alchemist might have represented this element by depicting a white eagle. When nitric acid is heated, it releases red vapors, so the alchemist might have depicted a red dragon in its place. Alchemists symbolized the reactions by the depicted relationships between the two figures. In this case, the red dragon would have possibly been shown devouring the white eagle, representing the solid ammonium chloride dissolving within a heated nitric acid.
The artistic techniques used in surrealism are embedded with the same methods and color palettes alchemists used in the Middle Ages. Today, alchemical art and surrealism are invoked to create dreamy auras of ethereal proportions. Surrealist works typically offer more scale and dimension than their early counterparts. However, both art forms achieved a similar supernatural effect despite their separation in time. While surrealism focused on the irrational and the unconscious, alchemical art highlighted the unknown.
Alchemical art especially captured feelings of dreamy mysticism as the unstable pigments faded. The colors these alchemists created provided artists with more diverse arrays of palettes but became more unstable as they were exposed to light. Images buried within the pages of books were better preserved due to their lack of exposure. Nonetheless, the passage of time inevitably eroded the once vibrant hues of these medieval pieces. This decay perhaps enhances the ephemeral beauty of alchemical arts and its dreamlike descendants of the surrealist movement.
While Surrealism currently holds the crown for being the most recognizable art style for the fantastical and bizarre, its alchemical precursor used this centuries before to conceal knowledge of early science like a sophisticated puzzle. Each symbol, action, and color represented different facets of a chemical reaction in ways that only other alchemists could understand, and they were so thorough with their concealment that scientists and artists alike continue to struggle with deciphering them today. Their work emphasizes that while surrealism holds its own as an art movement exploring the unconscious and the irrational, it will continue to remain a multidisciplinary phenomenon involving science, art, philosophy, and culture. Even as art continues to evolve and adapt in technique and style, we can still look to historical styles within alchemical art as the ancestors of art history.
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