Art and alchemy in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast

May and June have a lot of bank holidays in the Netherlands, and this year we decided to use one of the bank holiday weekends for a short road trip to Germany. It gave me to opportunity to visit the exhibition Art and Alchemy at the Düsseldorf Museum Kunstpalast, which alone was worth the trip. This extremely well-researched exhibition brings together unique documents and objects, like the Ripley Scrolls, the Leiden Papyri, porcelain, glass, distillation apparatus and historical and contemporary art works.

Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf

As I have discussed before on this blog, alchemy was strongly connected to medicine in the early modern era, so this was an exhibition I definitely wanted to see. The curators have done a great job, visualizing the connections between early modern art, alchemy and medicine through intelligent matching of objects, images and texts.

The exhibition is divided over two spaces: one focuses on the historical connections between art and alchemy, primarily in the early modern period, and in the other space, contemporary art influenced by alchemy takes centre stage. Whereas the historical section was a feast of recognition for me, I was pleasantly surprised by the contemporary section of the exhibition.

Exhibition catalogueI especially enjoyed Rebecca Horn‘s works, like ‘The chemical wedding,’ a glass reservoir half filled with blue water and a quotation from Johann Valentin Andreae’s 1616 novel The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, anno 1459, printed on top. The blue water -blue symbolized the female in Rosicrusian symbolism- evaporates and condenses on the top plate, thus endlessly dividing and reuniting in this hermetic vessel.

An impressive and surprisingly friendly priced hard cover catalogue accompanies the exhibition. As the exhibition was created in cooperation with the Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the catalogue contains contributions by leading experts in the field, such as Lawrence M. Principe, Sven Dupré, Jennifer Rampling and William R. Newman, and is available in both a German and English. If your happen to be in Düsseldorf before 10 August, do not miss Art and Alchemy!

How a bird of paradise finally ended up in the Prado

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Madrid to celebrate new year’s with some close friends. One of the best parts of my stay was a visit to the Prado museum, and particularly the ‘Natural Histories’ exhibition that is on until the end of April. This is not an exhibition in the conventional sense of the word; rather, it is an artistic project -or ‘artistic interventions’ as the creator calls them- throughout the museum by the Spanish artist Miguel Ángel Blanco.

Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.
Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.

What many visitors usually do not realize is that the Prado was originally designed to house a natural history collection. The idea for the new museum was conceived by the Spanish king Carlos III (1716-1788), an enlightened ruler who amassed a great collection of art and natural history during his life. Important parts of this collection were brought together by two men hardly known outside their respective countries: the Spanish naturalist Pedro Franco Dávila (1711-1786), who was born in and travelled extensively throughout Spanish South America, and the Dutch naturalist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey (1729-1812). The latter reluctantly sold his collection to Carlos in 1785 after his political views had compromised his income.

The Prado building was designed in in the same year, but by the time it was finished Carlos had died and his grandson decided to turn the building into the first public art museum in Spain. It opened in 1819, and never housed a collection of natural history. Carlos’ natural history collection remained in what he had originally intended as contemporary housing, the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. The collections of this cabinet eventually developed into three other museums: the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional and the Museo de América. Blanco chose the objects for his project from their collections, and those of the Apothecary Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.
Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.

Now, for the first time since the eighteenth century, a small part of the royal natural history collections and the royal art collections are reunited at the Prado, and it works amazingly well. Instead of creating a separate exhibition space, the objects Blanco has chosen are placed throughout the museum, and paired with paintings and sculptures. The skeleton of a snake rests in front of Dürer’s paintings of Adam and Eve, a stuffed bird of paradise sits next to Frans Snyder’s Concert of Birds and apothecary bottles filled with snakes and toads, as well as a piece of sulphur, lie in front of Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath.

This way of bringing together art and nature works so well for several reasons. First, it reflects historical events and processes, and in way it posthumously fulfills king Carlos’s dream of a grand museum for his natural history collection. Second, as the objects chosen by Blanco are spread throughout the museum, all visitors are automatically engaged in the project at some point. As I noticed while wandering through the museum, initial confusion about the presence of natural history objects in an art museum soon dissolved in in wonder and enthusiasm with many visitors. The objects make them look at the paintings and sculptures differently, as they raise questions of and give well-dosed information about the shared history of the Prado, the art works, and the natural history objects.

In an interview with the New York Times about the project, Blanco mentions that this kind of exhibition is a relatively cheap solution to presenting existing collections in novel ways. If this is the kind of creativity that austerity evokes in the cultural sector, the future of historical collections is bright.

Natural Histories‘ until 27 April 2014, Museum del Prado, Madrid.

Additional source:

Miguel Ángel Blanco, “La llamada del ave del Paraíso,” in Historias Naturales, Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013, p. 13-20.