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2016 Conference Plenary Address

Alchemists revealing secrets from the Book of Seven Seals, detail of watercolor in The Ripley Scroll, England, ca. 1700. (Getty Research Institute, 950053)

Alchemists revealing secrets from the Book of Seven Seals, detail of watercolor in The Ripley Scroll, England, ca. 1700. (Getty Research Institute, 950053)


4:30-5:30 pm  saturday, october 8

David Brafman, Rhiannon Knol, & Marcia Reed: The Art of Alchemy

Carollee Campbell, proprietor of the Ninja Press, introduced the three plenary panelists from the Getty Research Institute. They discussed the exhibition of the Art of Alchemy, which APHA members would be fortunate enough to preview the following day. 

First we heard from David Brafman, the Associate Curator of Rare Books at the Getty Research Institute. Brafman, with his degrees in both Classics and Arabic, seemed like the ideal candidate to curate this exhibit. He informed us that the bulk of the works on display came from the archives of Manly Palmer Hall, a collector from Los Angeles, whose widow sold his large library of esoterica, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and the occult to the Getty Research Institute in 1995.

Brafman described how alchemy changed the way people looked at art and nature. Alchemy is the ancestor of modern chemistry, and the exhibition reflects alchemy’s relationships to science and creativity in the context of alchemy’s lasting legacy.


Today, when we think back on alchemy, we are usually limited to the concept of alchemists seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in an effort to transform lead into gold. And when the uninitiated wish to express “alchemy” through imagery, there is often a fetishization of apparatus, such as a distillation device, or the form of the furnace. For instance, we were shown a somewhat bawdy 1608 woodcut from Rome, which anthropomorphized laboratory equipment copulating along with its human counterparts. Distillation meets titillation: the alchemist’s dream! (And the printer’s as well, of course, should the distillation process result in intoxicating spirits.)


Historically, however, alchemists had more ambitious goals: they sought to bend the natural world to the will of an industrious human nature. The ties between alchemy and printing history were also made apparent. Printing is dependent on alchemy via chemistry and metallurgy, but alchemy and the history of book arts also share a philosophical bond: “If you’re not an alchemical adept or an APHA member, you don’t tend to look at the subject for its materiality,” stated Brafman, the implication being that the analysis of materiality unites the two disciplines on both philosophical and practical levels. 

The charismatic Brafman then passed the mic to Rhiannon Knol, a research assistant in the curatorial department at the Getty Research Institute. Knol discussed another aspect of the Institute’s acquisitions, “An Alembic of One’s Own: Female Owners and Annotators in the Manly Palmer Hall Collection.” The title, of course, is a play on Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” a proposal for a physical and metaphorical space for women within a discipline dominated by men.

According to Knol, women have been part of the history of alchemy since its beginnings. Women were in the vanguard of scientific culture, philosophizing, theorizing, and experimenting alongside their male counterparts. But their names didn’t usually make it onto the title page, a common problem historically occurring with women printers as well.

Knol elaborated the cases of several women collectors of alchemical works, such as Mary Marston and Elizabeth Worchester Mills, whose libraries, a component of the Manly Hall collection, are shown in the Art of Alchemy exhibit. The question was posed: Did these women have “alembics of their own?” It seems likely, but once again, the history has been lost.

We were then introduced to the third panelist, Marcia Reed, the Chief Curator and Associate Director for Special Collections and Exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute. She spoke about the contemporary artist books in the Institute’s collection whose concepts or structures stem from alchemical themes, signs, or symbols. (As an exclusive treat for APHA members, Reed would show a selection of these artist books on Sunday, accompanying the APHA sneak preview of the Art of Alchemy exhibition.)

Reed said she always wondered why printers and artists put so much stress on materials, but now she understands that materials and processes are the essential elements in both books and art, echoing her colleague Brafman’s observation about the commonalities between the two disciplines. She described how some artist books depend on substance or materiality for presentation of their themes, manifest in choices of design, shape, inks, and substrate.


Liber Ignis by Peter Rutledge Koch, Adam Cornford, and Jonathan Gerken. Berkeley, California: Editions Koch, 2015

She then shared some of the notable works in the collection, such as Peter Koch’s Liber Ignis, with its lead pages, copper cover, and its bleak yet beautiful imagery of the “war against nature” in the West, a more pessimistic take on man’s desire to control the natural world. We saw glimpses of similarly inspiring works by Carolee Campbell, Michelle Burgess, Anselm Kiefer, Barbara Fahrner, and Jan Cincera, among others.

We left with a thirst for this intriguing exhibit and selection of artist books, which would be slaked on Sunday, with these three superb panelists serving as our guides.

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