Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst Alchemy

Except they are different. In some ways, the artist and the occultist are one and the same. Picasso, Dali and Max Ernst have been described as shamans (the latter being portrayed as such in Leonora Carrington’s 1939 portrait: fig. 4), Duchamp as an alchemist, Gauguin as a magus. These titles are often applied to the artist, who may also be ascribed visionary powers, being in touch with a world beyond the mundane. The idea of the artist as some kind of magician goes back to prehistory.

Probably the greatest artistic magical act of the twentieth century was that performed by the alchemist, Marcel Duchamp.

Alchemy is usually thought of as the quest for a Philosopher’s Stone that allows the transformation of base metals into gold, but another interpretation is that it is not tied to the material world and that the Stone is knowledge and the gold is enlightenment, the transformation of consciousness. By signing a urinal and displaying it in a gallery, Duchamp not only effected a physical transformation (urinal to artwork), he managed to transform consciousness. He changed what art was, and we can still feel the effects of that act even today.

When looked at as a piece of history, Fountain may well be Duchamp’s true ‘Great Work’ (the study and practice of alchemy), but it does not seem that he necessarily saw it so. Nadia Choucha reports that J.F. Moffitt traced the influence of occultism –and in particular alchemy- on Duchamp, in his essay Marcel Duchamp: Alchemist of the Avant-Garde. Moffitt believes that Duchamp studied alchemical primary sources as his interest in the subject grew, and that the recurring motif of the circular form in the artist’s work are based on the alchemical symbol for gold.

Apparently influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Duchamp was already exploring the idea that art had the ability to directly change consciousness when he began work on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) in 1915, two years before Fountain. “Duchamp was a modern alchemist, and The Large Glass was his ‘Great Work’ (Choucha), and, as with many of the alchemists of the past, the work was left unfinished: Duchamp was still making notes and diagrams up until he died in 1968, and Nadia Choucha believes it has its origin in two seventeenth century alchemical parables.

Max Ernst was another artist who crossed the bridge between Dada and Surrealism, and the influence of alchemy on his work has already been mentioned. This influence is examined in Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth by M. E. Warlick, the discovery of the existence of which was too late for me to obtain it for inclusion in my research, so instead I will briefly point out that Ernst had felt he was aware of the occult world since his childhood, and described himself as “a young man aspiring to become a magician” following his ‘death’ at the beginning of the First World War and ‘resuscitation’ at the end; a symbolic initiation.

As has been noted previously, the writings of Eliphas Levi were influential upon Andre Breton. In the 1920s, the Surrealists borrowed the spiritualist practice of automatic drawing and writing, and by the 1940s, according to Choucha, “we find concepts and imagery borrowed from Alchemy, the Tarot, Gnosticism, Tantra, Shamanism amongst others, not only as subject matter, but influencing production and technique.” As a group, the Surrealists were fairly open-minded when it came to occult ideas.


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