- the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.
- a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.
The class travelled this week to the Surry Hills art studio of Brett Whitely, to explore his painting, Alchemy.
The artwork, completed between 1972 and 1973 is composed of many different elements on 18 wood panels. The painting can be read from left or right or visa versa. While discussing the work, by reading it from right to left, I found the `story’ can be seen as a `birth to death’ visualisation.
Beginning with sexual landscapes and mindscapes, the painting then travels through a scenery of birds’ nests, glass eyes, shell pieces, plugs, quotes and references to the works of William Blake, Patrick White and others, and a real human brain before finally coming to an end with a white exploding sun, set against gold backdrop. This panel was recycled from a portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima that Whiteley had started but never completed.
Afterwards, we were allowed to wander around the studio where Whiteley lived during the last few years of his life. Upstairs were unfinished paintings, art supplies, his collections of books, and a wall covered with graffiti, quotes and images. The living area had mementos such as photographs and postcards, furniture, sketchbooks and his CD vinyl collection. I love exploring the music collection of friends and family and happily went through Whiteley’s. I was pleased to discover an album by Patti Smith, connecting Whiteley even further to our William Blake exploration. I was not surprised to find a number of copies of Dire Strait’s live album Alchemy that features the painting on its sleeve.
One of my favourite parts of our Literature visits to Art Galleries is the dialogue it opens among the students. We all offer different interpretations of what the artist is trying to convey. What I find is that the artist doesn’t always provide the answer to our questions. Instead, the question is turned back to us and asks us what we see. We experience the work and figure out what it means to us.
Painting is an argument between what it looks like and what it means.
– Brett Whiteley