What are the practices of hermeticism

Sehepunkte 4 (2004), No. 12

Hermetics is booming. Along with the historians of the natural sciences, philosophers and literary scholars, art historians have also discovered hermetics, along with other occult teachings, as an important source of artistic modernism. [1] In this context is Ulli Seeger's dissertation, which examines the importance of hermetics for the art of the 20th century in the work of Antonin Artaud, Yves Klein and Sigmar Polke. Her basic thesis is: In modern times, hermetics has transformed from a religion to a specific thought structure, which in competition with the Enlightenment, hermeneutics and mechanistic worldview has persisted to the present day and has proven to be the essential core of modern aesthetics. To support this thesis, she spans an arc from late antiquity to the time of Goethe, in order to include Aby Warburg and Theodor W. Adorno in the hermetic tradition in addition to the artists mentioned.

The book is divided into three large sections. The first section gives an overview of the history of the effects of the late antique syncretistic doctrine, the textual basis of which is the religious-philosophical bundle of writings of the Corpus Hermeticum ascribed to the god Hermes Trismegistus. The main features of the content are the idea of ​​a mirror-image analogy relationship between God, the world and man, as well as a cosmogony in which creation is thought of as the emanation of the material world from the divine. An important branch of hermetics is alchemy, which seeks to apply its arcane knowledge in practice on the basis of the idea that all substances can be transformed in principle with the aim of perfecting creation. In the epoch of humanism, the hermetic conception of man as a "second god" had a lasting influence on thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Agrippa von Nettesheim. - This section is an instructive summary of the current state of research on hermetics. Unfortunately, it does not contain any statements about the rich world of images and the image conception of alchemy, although in the following section reference is made to alchemical iconography and the "mode of action of the hermetic symbol" (83) and "image magic" (96) are mentioned. Here one would have wished for more precise information - especially against the background of the current debate in the field of image science.

In the second section, works by Antonin Artaud, Yves Klein and Sigmar Polke are analyzed for their relationship to hermetics; this is where the author's actual research comes in. Her aim is to uncover structural analogies to hermetics, which she understands as a "thought structure" (10) that has been distilled out of historical hermetics in the course of the modern process of secularization - alchemically speaking. In his writings, Antonin Artaud placed the "theater of cruelty" itself in close relation to alchemy. The theatrical events, which are based on ancient mystery games, should work analogously to the alchemical process of change, that is, the participants subject to physical experiences and thus lead to a "spiritual rebirth". Less known are Artaud's portrait drawings made after 1937, by means of which he wanted to inflict magic damage on the portrayed. However, these magical practices are primarily inspired by Indian models, so that the relationship to alchemy remains vague. It would have been important to mention that Artaud's alchemical interests are in the context of the Surrealists' intensive preoccupation with hermetics, which has been the subject of intensive art-historical research since the 1980s. [2]

Yves Klein was for a time a member of the Rosicrucians and undoubtedly familiar with Hermetic literature. The author rightly points out that his "leap into the void", the color-line polarity and the monochrome blue, the transformation of gold into "immaterial images" as well as his use of the elements fire, water and air as constitutive means show relationships with the Hermetic tradition in the "cosmogonies". In his oeuvre, however, the tendency towards immaterialization outweighs the tendency towards the transformation of the material, in this respect it shows less alchemical and more gnostic traits. Klein's relation to hermetics is completely different from Artaud's. It turns out that the dazzling spectrum of esoteric teachings hidden behind the collective term hermetics has inspired an equally broad spectrum of artistic tendencies in the 20th century. It would have been desirable to have critically weighed up the relevance of the hermetic-gnostic tradition of thought in relation to that of Zen Buddhism, which was also important for Yves Klein.

Sigmar Polke's exploration of alchemy has already been the subject of research. [3] However, the author gains new aspects from her: First, she analyzes the processed motifs mountain, tree, hands in detail in relation to "The Three Lies of Painting" (1994) and the cycle "Hermes Trismegistos I - IV" (1995) the background of the alchemical iconography and color symbolism, the transparency of the painting ground and the axial symmetry, in order to unfold their hermetic repertoire of meaning. In a second level of argumentation, going beyond the iconographic approach, she develops the thesis that Polke does not only depict alchemical principles, but applies them to the works themselves: the painted picture is therefore quasi-alchemically broken down into its material components, dissolved and then reassembled what Seegers aptly calls an "alchemy of the image".

Unfortunately, the author does not explain the criteria by which she selected these three artists. It also does not make any statements about how many and which other artists of the 20th century can be identified as having hermetic tendencies and whether the three artists discussed are exemplary. In view of their far-reaching intention to make fundamental statements about the aesthetics of modernity, this would have been desirable.

The third section is about the proof of Seegers' basic thesis, according to which hermetics has become the underlying key figure of modern aesthetics. Here she states that hermetics have a formative influence on aesthetics. After the triumphant advance of rationalism, this had become the actual residue of hermeticism, insofar as it upgraded sensual knowledge. Max Imdahl's insistence on the cognitive value of "seeing seeing" thus proves to be an updated version of a hermetic and antihermeneutic relationship to the world.

Aby Warburg's iconology, namely his central concept of the "pathos formula", is interpreted by Seegers as an attempt to grasp the "hermetic image effect" (209) in a way that eliminates the tension between "intuition and cognition, fantasy and reason, myth and science" (219 ) maintains and makes it fruitful for scientific knowledge. She sees structural similarities between Warburg's concept of the image and alchemy in terms of their polar disposition, the attribution of magical power to the image and the energetic function of memory. Image magic is not a prominent property of alchemical emblematics, and it also plays a role in a wide variety of cultures and religious contexts, but the assumption may be plausible that hermetics was the most obvious source for Warburg.

Seegers' view that the hermetic tradition continues to have an effect in Adorno's concept of the "hermetic work of art" is less convincing. The objection would be that the term "hermetic" - as it was used in the post-war period in relation to modern poetry - served the metaphorical description of the enigmatic and ambiguous character of the "open work of art" (Eco) and was consequently opposed to the hermetic tradition has become independent. [4] The author's claim to bring all of modernity to a single denominator turns out to be exaggerated here at the latest.

Once hermeticism has become the fulcrum from which the entire Western intellectual history can be rewritten, familiar works of art also appear in a new light. In an excursus, Seegers therefore suggests interpretations based on the hermetic exegesis of two of the most puzzled works in art history - Botticelli's "Primavera" and Dürer's "Melencolia I", although she confidently ignores the fact that such - at least for Dürer - have already been presented several times. [5] This lack of examination of the - especially art-historical - research literature is conspicuous almost across the board. The author refrains from discussing the research literature on the influence of esoteric teachings on modernity in general and on the surrealistic hermetic reception in particular. Instead, she distances herself from it across the board, making her book appear completely without any preconditions. But the earlier work laid the foundations for Seegers' study, even gave it the key keywords. The thesis that relevant currents in the philosophical and aesthetic discourse of the modern age of historical gnosis and hermetics have structurally related figures of thought has already been formulated by Michael Pauen and Beat Wyss. [6]

The book does not spare the interested reader from doing their own research. But it has the merit of making the historical research on the history of ideas on hermetics, which has become confusing due to its interdisciplinarity, available for art history. Seegers also offers some brilliant work analyzes, especially on Polke, a stimulating synopsis of Aby Warburg's most important theorems and a controversial thesis on the aesthetics of modernism. We therefore strongly recommend reading your book to anyone interested in the art of the 20th century.


[1] Fundamental: Beat Wyss (conception and editing): Mythology of the Enlightenment. Secret Doctrine of Modernity, (= annual ring; Volume 40), Munich: Verlag Silke Schreiber, 1993. Furthermore, the exhibition catalogs: The Spiritual in Art. Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York 1986; Occultism and avant-garde. From Munch to Mondrian. 1900 - 1915, Schirn-Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Ostfildern 1995. As well as the artist monographic studies mentioned under Note 2.

[2] Arturo Schwarz: The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, London and New York, 1965; Maurizio Calvesi: Duchamp invisibile, Rome 1975; Arturo Schwarz: Die Surrealisten, Frankfurt am Main 1989, 34 ff .; Hubertus Gassner: Joan Miró. The magical gardener, Cologne 1994; Verena Kuni: Victor Brauner. The artist as seer, magician and alchemist, Frankfurt am Main 1995; Richard Danier: L'hermétisme alchimique chez André Breton. Interpretation de la symbolique de trois œuvres du poète, Villeselve 1997; Marjorie E. Warlick: Max Ernst and Alchemy. A Magician in Search of Myth, Austin / Texas, 2001; John F. Moffitt: Alchemist of the Avant-Garde. The Case of Marcel Duchamp, Albany / New York 2003. Critical to the interpretations on a hermetic basis: Dieter Daniels: Duchamp and the others. The model case of an artistic impact history in the modern age, Cologne 2002, 238-257.

[3] Most recently: Martin Hentschel: Solve et coagula. On alchemy in Polke's art, in: Catalog Sigmar Polke. The three lies of painting. Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn 1997, 41-95.

[4] Gerhard Kurz: Hermetism. On the use and function of a literary theoretical term after 1945, in: N. Kaminski / H.J. Drügh / M. Herrmann (eds.): Hermetics. Literary figurations between Babylon and Cyperspace, Tübingen 2002, 179-197.

[5] Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub: Arcana Artis. Traces of alchemical symbolism in the art of the 16th century, in: Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 1937, Volume VI, 289-324; J. Read: Dürer's Melencolia - An Alchemical Interpretation, in: The Burlington Magazine, Nov. 1945, 283 ff .; Jacques van Lennep: Alchemy. Contribution à l'histoire de l'art alchimique, Brussels 1985, 301 ff .; Maurizio Calvesi: La melanconia di Albrecht Dürer, Torino 1993.

[6] Michael Pauen: dithyrambic of doom. Gnosticism in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Modernism, Berlin 1994, 11 ff .; Beat Wyss: Art prayers to Satan. A sketch of the history of mentality, in: Konrad P. Liessmann (ed.): Fasziation des Böse. On the depths of the human, Vienna 1997, 191-210.

Ulli Seegers: Alchemy of Seeing. Hermetic art in the 20th century. Antonin Artaud, Yves Klein, Sigmar Polke (= Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek; Vol. 21), Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König 2003, 314 pages, 25 color, 41 b / w illustrations, ISBN 978-3-88375- 701-8, EUR 48.00

Verena Krieger
Institute for Art History, University of Stuttgart
Verena Krieger: Review by: Ulli Seegers: Alchemie des Sehens. Hermetic art in the 20th century. Antonin Artaud, Yves Klein, Sigmar Polke, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König 2003, in: sehepunkte 4 (2004), No. 12 [December 15, 2004], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de/2004/12 /6294.html

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