Art and Alchemy Shine in Getty Exhibits


Centuries before Harry Potter fans heard of the Philosopher’s Stone or Pantone created its Pantone Matching System, medieval alchemists tried to transform matter into gold … and other colors. Three exhibits that opened this week at the Getty Center in Los Angeles shine a light on alchemy and the role it played in art and other fields.

One exhibition at the center’s Getty Research Institute examines “the Art of Alchemy” using a global perspective. Another related show within the J. Paul Getty Museum part of the complex looks at “The Alchemy of Color on Medieval Manuscripts.” The third, also in the museum, looks at a particular artist, with an emphasis on his color usage: “The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena.”

Alchemy, the medieval antecedent to modern chemistry, is known for attempts to make synthetic gold and transform nature to suit human will. Color back then was tied more closely to its material and scientific properties, not esthetics. This historical perspective of the chemistry of making colors used in artworks unites the three exhibits. None are likely to draw huge crowds. However, as a combination, they offer an intriguing scholarly perspective on how art and chemistry evolved together.

Art of Alchemy

“The Art of Alchemy” addresses items that how alchemy historically bonded art and science. The more than 100 pieces, from classical antiquity to Industrial age Europe, show the evolution of transforming metals into color. Inclusions range from a Leonardo DaVinci drawing to a Bayer (the “aspirin” company deals with chemicals as well as pharmaceuticals) chart showing a rainbow of dyes they developed long before Pantone’s system.

One item included is a second-century Eqyptian mummy portrait that was painted with red trim that is an early example of fusing medicinal and artistic applications. The red was lead-based and poisonous. Its use on the mummy’s portrait kept insects from eating it.

The “philosopher’s stone” comes up in some exhibit items. Western alchemists (and the fictional Voldemort) sought it to enable their efforts to transform base metals into precious ones, especially gold and silver, and for its rumored ability to prolong life. A 20-foot-long, hand-painted, 18th century scroll shown unraveled in full here depicts allegorical symbolism showing alchemical operations and the creation of the philosophers’ stone.

GettyAlchemy of Color

Alchemy was closely tied to the production of pigments and inks even before Bayer’s synthetic rainbow of options. “The Alchemy of Color on Medieval Manuscripts” features medieval books (some featuring recipes for manufacturing pigments and medications) with extravagant illustrations.

Best yet, it also features displays that show the ingredients used for certain colors and various purposes. Gold leaf is evident (alchemists did focus a lot of efforts on gold) in many of the tomes. Then, there are earth pigments, chmically produced ones (e.g., red lead), and organic colorants (e.g., saffron).

Some of the other colors have far more interesting stories and illustrate the ties between art and medicine. Many pigments used were highly toxic, such as the vermilion made from mercury and sulfide roasted together. Others, such as the expensive lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan, added beauty to images. It was also used as a treatment, albeit an expensive one, for melancholy or depression, i.e. “feeling blue.” Indigo from Baghdad was used for dyes and coloring; the leaves were also used to staunch bleeding.

Shimmer of Gold

“The Shimmer of Gold” exhibit came out of a conservation project. The Getty was working on a wood panel by di Paolo for a source in Italy. They also started working on a Branchini Madonna wood altarpiece from 1427 that is owned by the Norton Simon Museum across town. The panels reflect an old school, elongated finger styling with touches of the emerging Renaissance.

The conservation scholars thought they were related (given painting techniques, dating, and style). They then determined they were also tied to three other panels in Siena. The four pieces and a fifth that has not been found (yet) were determined to be part of the same altarpiece from the Branchini family chapel at Siena’s church of San Domenico. They are united at the Getty for the first time since the 1600s.

The connection with the other two exhibits is the richly colored and layered painting technique. Besides heavy use of gold, the artist created effects with the few pigments available at the time in the use of layers. For example, adding translucent layers of paint over gold created magical luminosity. Another technique involved putting opaque paint over the gold and they scratching it off in patterns. These techniques made decorative details leap off the wood.

While the three exhibits on art and alchemy debuted the same week at the Getty, their closing dates this winter differ. “The Alchemy of Color” runs through Jan. 1, 2017. “The Shimmer of Gold” closes Jan. 8 and “The Art of Alchemy” will be on display until Feb. 12.

Writtien and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Exhibit visits
Getty: The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts
Getty: The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena
Getty: The Art of Alchemy
Encyclopedia Britannica: Philosopher’s Stone

Photos by Dyanne Weiss

Your Thoughts?