Art and Alchemy. The Mystery of Transformation (April 5 to August 10, 2014)

Introductory remarks by Lawrence M. Principe and Sven Dupré

Before entering the exhibition, Lawrence M. Principe gave a very brief introduction on alchemy, while art historian Sven Dupré and curator Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk (right to left) expected their turns in the background.

Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Düsseldorf to see the alchemy exhibition currently running at the Museum Kunstpalast. I chose this particular date because of an event announced as a book launch that actually turned out to be a guided tour through the exhibition. A handful of attendees had the privilege of being guided through the marvels of pre-modern alchemy by Sven Dupré and Lawrence M. Principe, who had himself contributed some exhibition pieces.

While going through the atmospherically lit hall, Principe and Dupré took turns introducing select objects. And let me tell you, they must have faced some difficult choices as the items brought together in this exhibition were exquisite: normally scattered in various collections across the world, it was a fascinating experience to move in just a few steps from the oldest preserved documents of alchemical practice, the Stockholm and Leiden papyri, to porcelain produced in the Medici laboratory and on to a manuscript in Newton’s hand behind which there lies an intriguing story involving Robert Boyle and John Locke.

A whole range of stunning paintings were also on display, including a new personal favourite of mine: The Alchemist (1630) by the Utrecht-based painter Johan Moreelse. Looking just like an ancient philosopher in his red garb, an old alchemist carefully fans the flame of his furnace, resting his bellows on a book containing Hebrew letters and magical symbols resembling those in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De occulta philosophia (1533).

The only minor criticism I have is that it’s an art exhibition rather than one focusing on the history of science. Consequently, some of the juxtapositions (especially those including material from the nineteenth century) can seem a little bit off from a historical point of view, catering to popular misconceptions. Granted, perhaps these elements would have made more sense if I’d actually had the time to go and look at the second part, featuring works of art from the twentieth century until today.

Nevertheless, as I don’t have the impression that too many of my readers would be history-of-science purists, there’s little more that I can say: go and visit this exhibition if you can! You might have to wait a long time for anything resembling it and bringing together such gems at your convenience.

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