There is a stage in a child's emergence as a writer when no separation is made between writing and drawing. When drawing is writing (and vice versa), letter and number-like forms are scattered among other marks representing parents, planets, vehicles, rainbows, superheroes; the things that mean the most in that individual child's world. Very young children may have little to say about a drawing once it is finished but speak to them while they draw and they will tell long, involved stories that reveal how meaningful these apparently random marks are. Usually around the age of four, an awareness of the differences between letter and image develops. At this point, the education system starts to focus hard on literacy skills; referring to writing as the capacity to encode. Sometimes I feel that it is at this moment, when image and alphabetic code separates, that we may be missing a trick. Children spend many subsequent years learning the correct rules of language and number systems and often become disconnected from explaining themselves in images altogether.
Recently I have been looking at an old coded system: alchemy. The word alchemist conjures images of hapless men in dungeon laboratories trying to turn dirt into gold, but, although a controversial practice, alchemy was practiced seriously in England between the 12th and 18th Centuries. The alchemist experimented on 'base' materials, putting them through various chemical processes, heating, cooling, distillation etc and observing how their properties changed as a result. Where their work differs from modern science is that symbolic images and ideas were also attached to the process. On a material level the aim was to transform 'base' matter into gold but there were loftier aims: the philosophers stone, the elixir of life...
Alchemical texts of the medieval period are rich in visual and symbolic imagery. Every element in the process, or 'magnum opus', has myriad identities. The glass vessels, used to contain the matter, might be known as the coffin, grave, ship, womb, nest, bed or garden, depending on what chemical process was occurring within it. Alchemists investigated 'divine' geometry and astronomy, linking their work to religious and magical traditions, colour coding the progress of refinement from base to gold was colour coded: black becomes white, white becomes green, green becomes red. Red, the 'rubedo', is the colour that represents the ideal state: often depicted as a red lion, king, or rose.
By far the most striking alchemical texts, from a visual perspective are the works of English alchemist, cosmologist and mathematician Robert Fludd (1574-1637). It is surprising that Fludd's diagrams are not better known because they are certainly works of art. And, for those of us who still explain themselves in images, they are a feast of ideas.
Work in progress .DeTOXIFY ME: White Green & Red ~ Portable Diptych, gold leaf & mixed media on wood
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