The Sign of the Black Sun

Black Sun-Toyen 1951
Black Sun-Toyen 1951

My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.

Toyen’s phantasmagorical art is filled with images of transformation, of women becoming animals or vice versa, of sudden and terrifying shifts in size and scale, of spectral figures in the process of materialisation, of impossible desires becoming reality. Sometimes it seems that the decidedly ambiguous Toyen was channeling the entire occult and magical history of Prague.

The paintings that Toyen produced in the 1950’s onward, after Surrealism had shifted decidedly from revolutionary politics and towards the occult, frequently point towards the signs of Alchemist Alley, now Golden Lane. The black sun is the first stage of the magnum opus and also refers to the dissolution of the body and hence the ego.

I have included a selection of Toyen’s magnificently compelling paintings of metamorphosis and phantasmal  figures.

All the elements-Toyen 1950
All the elements-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-New World of Year 1968
Toyen-New World of Love 1968
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971

 

 

 

 

Monas Hieroglyphica

Monas Hieroglyphica-John Dee 1564
Monas Hieroglyphica-John Dee 1564

In many respects the brilliant but baffling Dr John Dee is the archetypal Renaissance man and magus. Mathematician, astronomer, expert in navigation, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and the man credited with coining the term ‘British Empire’, Dee was also a very serious magician and occult philosopher who devoted much of his life to the study of astrology, alchemy, divination and the summoning of angels.

In 1564 Dee published his enigmatic treatise on the Monas Hieroglyphica, a symbol of his own design meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. The text was probably devised as a brief introduction to symbolic language; after piquing the learned reader’s interest Dee would presumably then offer to provide personal tutelage on the subject.

The glyph makes an appearance in one of the founding documents of the Rosicrucians, the alchemical allegory The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Quite how it ended up there is explored in detail in Francis Yates’s fascinating The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.

Above is the frontispiece to an early edition published in Antwerp. Below are selected images of the glyph from the treatise, as well as John Coulthart’s stunning variation of the Monas Hieroglyphica.

I will leave you with concluding words of the treatise, which could really serve as the guiding maxim for all alchemical/esoteric literature.

Here the vulgar eye will see nothing but Obscurity and will despair considerably.

 

Cosmic Emblems

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra Emblem 5-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

The German shoemaker, mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme’s dense theosophical writings are filled with alchemical references and allusions. These taken together with elements of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah make Boehme one of the most occult inclined of Christian writers.

The following illustrations are taken from the appendix to William Law’s four volume edition of Boehme’s writing translated into English. Law was an Anglican priest who lost his position when he refused to give an oath of allegiance to King George I and therefore become a private tutor. Among his students were Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, (though they fell out over Law’s admiration of Boehme).

The illustrations were undertaken by the London based German mystic Dionysuis Andreas Freher, whose work was a major influence upon the English poet, painter and prophet William Blake.

The complete series of emblems included above and below tells of Creation, the fall of Lucifer followed by the fall of Adam and man’s redemption through Jesus. Interestingly Sophia, a figure found in Gnosticism features prominently (the top S contrasting with the S of Sathan down below). The drawings of Hieroglyphica Sacra are unusual with their  near geometric abstraction, minimalism and pared down symbolism. It is alchemical art taken to its most cosmic level, an allegory of the War in the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and HellDionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehm

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 1-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 2-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 2-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 3-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 4-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 4-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 6-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 6-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 7-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 7-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 8-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 8-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hierolgyphica Sacra 9-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 9-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 10-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 10-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 11-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 11-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 12-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 12-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 13-William Law edition of Jacob Boehm
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 13-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme

 

 

 

 

The Magistery of Gold

Max Ernst-Le Silence á travers les âges-1968
Max Ernst-Le Silence á travers les âges-1968

Come here you, closer still,
I want you to be the first to know
That gold is all around this town
Beneath the streets & sewers,
Scattered haphazardly here there
Everywhere, enough to dazzle,
Blind the unwary with the glitter,
Shimmering dissolving glamour
When the sun shines again:
Do you have it within to dare?
To serve this magistery right?
To make the mad dream real,
Turn this place into Tenochtitlán,
Render into actuality El Dorado:
Do you possess the strength to will
Into existence all the power & glory
Of this metallic inhuman purity
The cold coalescence of stars?
After you have known, dared,
Willed these forces into being,
Now that you are experienced,
Initiated & illuminated can you
Keep a secret, will you remain silent?

Seven Eagles

Figure XII-Sapientia Veterum
Figure XII-Sapientia Veterum

The 40 illustrations of the Sapientia Veterum Philosophorum are among the finest and most striking of later (18th Century) alchemical art. Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, Balthus son and resident occult adviser to the Chelsea set in Swinging London, notes that it deserves to be seen in full, however I am unfortunately only able to present a limited number of images.

Reducing the royal art to only essential imagery, (glass vessel, dove, lion, rain, sun and moon), Sapientia shows the process of conjuration and separation of the elements in the ascent and descent of the dove, which occurs seven times in the manuscript. This transmigration of matter where the fixed is rendered volatile and the volatile fixed result in the so-called eagles, of which seven precede the exaltation of the Quintessence.

Figure VI
Figure VI
Figure VII
Figure VII
Figure VIII
Figure VIII
Figure X
Figure X
Figure XIV
Figure XIV
Figure XXIX
Figure XXIX
Figure XXXIII-Sapinetia Veretum
Figure XXXIII

Atalanta Fugiens

Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_14
Michael Maier -Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 14

The German physician and alchemist Michael Maier served as a counsellor to the occult besotted Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Capital of Bohemia, however the forces that would lead to the Thirty Years War were conspiring against the Emperor and Maier was forced to leave, first to England, where he composed a song for the royal wedding of Frederick V of the Palantine to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I, and then back to Germany in 1616, settling in Frankfurt am Main.

Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing) was published in 1617 by Johann Theodor de Bry in Oppenheim. de Bry published numerous works by authors aligned with the Rosicrucian movement and/or followers of the Swiss physician and occultist Paracelsus (incidentally also known as the ‘father of toxicology’).

An early example of a multi-media project, Atalanta is comprised of 50 discourses, each accompanied with an engraving by Matthias Merian of an alchemical emblem, an epigram, prose, a poem and a musical fugue for three voices.

Atalanta, as suggested by the title, frequently references Classical mythology, especially the story of the virgin huntress Atalanta, in addition to alchemical allegories featuring dragons, lions, the worm ouroboros and eagles..

Michael_Maier._Atalanta_Fugiens_Title_Page
Michael_Maier._Atalanta_Fugiens_Title_Page
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_1
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_1

 

Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_02
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_02
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_07
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_07
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_08
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_08
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_16
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_16
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_17
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_17
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_20
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_20
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_21
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_21
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_24
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_24
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_29
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_29
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_32
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_32
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_36
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_36
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_50
Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_50

 

Splendor Solis

Splendor_Solis_19_Black_Sun
Splendor_Solis_19_Black_Sun

One of the most sumptuous and beautiful of all illuminated alchemical texts, Splendor Solis was published in various versions throughout the German states in the 16th Century. Attributed to Salomon Trismosin, a legendary figure who acquired the Philosopher’s Stone and was allegedly Paracelsus’s teacher, Splendor contains 22 (the same number as the Major Arcana of the Tarot)  gorgeous, mystifying images with elaborate decorative borders reminiscent of  medieval Book of Hours. As with all alchemical treatises the text is full of dense allegorical references to the Solar King and Lunar Queen, death and re-birth, the black and the inner suns, planets and tinctures.

Splendor_Solis_04_Solar_King_and_Lunar_Queen_meet
Splendor_Solis_04_Solar_King_and_Lunar_Queen_Meet
Splendor_Solis_05_Miners_Excavating_Hill
Splendor_Solis_05_Miners_Excavating_Hill
Splendor_Solis_06_Philosophers_Beside_Tree
Splendor_Solis_06_Philosophers_Beside_Tree
Splendor_Solis_07_Drowning_King
Splendor_Solis_07_Drowning_King
Splendor_Solis_09_Hermaphrodite_with_Egg
Splendor_Solis_09_Hermaphrodite_with_Egg
Splendor_Solis_10_Severing_the_Head_of_the_King
Splendor_Solis_10_Severing_the_Head_of_the_King
Splendor_Solis_12_Saturn_Dragon_and_Child
Splendor_Solis_12_Saturn_Dragon_and_Child
Splendor_Solis_16_Venus_Peacocks_Tail
Splendor_Solis_16_Venus_Peacocks_Tail
Splendor_Solis_21_Women_Washing_Clothes
Splendor_Solis_21_Women_Washing_Clothes
Splendor_Solis_22_Sun_Rising_Over_the_City
Splendor_Solis_22_Sun_Rising_Over_the_City

 

 

SinisterShoreSide

Kurt Seligmann

At the school where I did anything but study
They tried to beat out the boldness
Only to encourage my wild and wicked side,
So they changed tack and instead talked and talked
Attempted to bore me from being bad
But it was of no use, they couldn’t avail
Because I was born sinister, one of the devil’s own;
My sympathy is always for the rogues and rebels,
The wanton and the wayward, waifs and strays,
Those sweet tarts with sickly gold hearts.
Even then my intentions were never honourable
But always and forever criminal, amen.

Let me take you down the left hand path,
Come on angel and crash with me
On the west side with its sinister streets,
Lift up your skirt and part those legs
Let’s ride through the rippling night
I will take you up to where I’m at,
Before showing you what’s down below,
Under the hill and beneath the deep blue.
Then solve et coagula, our reflections
Will refract in an avant garde rehearsal
Then splinter before a final re-con
Figuration on the distant sinister shore.

Fire

yves_klein_fremissement1
Yves Klein-MG17- 1960

There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves.  Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.

Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue, but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.

The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying  nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’  Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’

Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.

The Occultation of Surrealism

005l14122_7kjsm1
Toyen-Portrait of Andre Breton 1950

In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism from 1930, among all the excommunications and score settling, Andre Breton calls for the ‘…THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM,’ which is suitably followed up by quotes from Cornelius Agrippa’s Third & Fourth (spuriously attributed) Books of Magic. This interest in the occult, hermeticism and alchemy can also be evidenced by the set of playing cards the surrealists designed during WWII, which features another Renaissance occultist, Paracelsus, as the Magus of Locks.

However  it wasn’t until after WWII and Breton’s return to France from exile in New York that this hermetical tendency become dominant. The realities of the Cold War political landscape meant that the Breton placed ever less hope in the achievement of a Marxist Utopia, shifting  his focus towards the idiosyncratic mystical Socialist thinker Charles Fourier.

As can be seen from the above portrait (crayon, charcoal, oil and glitter on linen) Toyen embraced the change of direction enthusiastically. Painted as a birthday present and presented to Breton on the eve of his birthday, this idealised portrait places Breton in the centre of three triangles (one equilateral and two isosceles triangles) and surrounded by the four traditional elements, water and air, earth and fire.

Around this time Toyen had been working on the drawing series Neither Wings Nor Stones; Wings and Stones which has strong alchemical references. Also from this period Toyen painted At the Golden Wheel, At the Black Sun and At the Gold Tree inspired by  signs that were ‘luminious on the inside, not the outside’ of the Alchemist Street in Old Prague, magical capital of Europe since the days of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. The importance of the androgyne in alchemical literature and art would also have surely been noticed by Toyen, who purposefully chose an ungendered pseudonym.

Toyen’s unwavering devotion towards Breton and Breton’s respect and veneration of Toyen was such that, after his death in 1966, Breton’s widow Elisa insisted that Toyen move into his original studio at 42 Rue Fontaine, where she lived until her death in 1980. She was buried in Paris des Batignolles cemetery; close to her friends Jindrich Heisler and Andre Breton.

I will leave the last word on this exceptional artist to her friend Benjamin Peret, also buried in Paris des Batignolles;

The entire work of Toyen aims at nothing other than the correction of the outside world in accordance with a desire that feeds and grows on its own satisfaction.