Alchemy and the Quest for National Identity in Australian Art

Urszula Szulakowska has written extensively on the history of alchemical illustrations, alongside work exploring the influence of alchemical imagery in contemporary art. In this article she discusses how an increasing number of Australian artists are using alchemy as a metaphor to explore Australian identity and the political struggle of the aboriginals.


In the past few decades more and more Australian artists have adapted to their own purposes the theories and metaphors of alchemy, employing them in order to facilitate a radical critique of the historical construction of Australian identity in national culture, specifically in the fine arts.

In the late nineteenth century the influence of European esoteric ideas had been introduced to Australia by members of the international Theosophical Society, most notably Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934). He had emigrated to Sydney from England where he joined forces with another esoteric cult, that of the Liberal Catholic Church which had been established during the First World War by James Ingall Wedgwood (1883-1951)1. The effect of Theosophy on Australian art was first discussed by the Australian artist Tom Gibbons2. More recently, Jill Roe has recorded the work of Theosophist women artists and writers, such as Daisy Mary Rossi (1879-1974) and the influential feminist Bessie Rischbieth (1874 – 1967)3.

An interest in alchemy specifically has developed only since the 1980s, at first among small groups of university academics in Canberra and Sydney influenced by the writings of Frater Albertus Spagyricus (Dr. Albert Richard Riedel, 1911-84). Born in Dresden, Riedel emigrated to the United States in the 1960s where he established a private college of alchemical studies in Salt Lake City known as the Paracelsus Research Institute (later the Paracelsus College). From the late 1970s Riedel was paying annual visits to Australia in order to teach alchemy as a practical laboratory craft to a growing band of disciples. Anyone who was interested was granted entry to his teachings. Riedel’s practice was based on the principles of Paracelsian alchemy. Reidel made available in print a number of books on the subject purporting transparency in their account of the alchemical process4. So popular and wide-spread was his influence in Australia that on his death his college was transferred to Australia and renamed the Spagyric College5. The fine arts in Australia were not, however, directly influenced by the alchemical teachings of the Spagyric College whose following was mostly academic and literary. Instead, the visual artists drew on a variety of different sources in popular culture, such as paperback publications on Surrealist art and Jungian psychology and, above all, the Thames and Hudson series Art and Imagination. Another significant influence in the 1970s and 1980s was that of the Adyar bookshop-chain which made available to the public an exhaustive esoteric literature in the state capitals of Australia. This bookshop chain was the property of the Theosophical Society.

The ideas and symbols of alchemy entered the radical leftist political discourse of younger Australians. Politicised artists and art-theorists from the 1970s were re-examining the history of European settlement in Australia from the early 19th century and the cultural struggle to establish a new national identity. Artists such as Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) had promoted the evolution of a national myth of the white Australian settlement and had sought to establish a patriotic Australian iconography incorporating the dry and arid local landscape of scrubby woodland, semi-desert, eucalyptus trees and farmlands. These symbols of national identity expressed in the Australian landscape tradition were perceived by the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s as pernicious tools of imperialist and racist politics6. In the major state capitals of Sydney and Melbourne leftist artists, critics and art-historians began to search for a different national identity which would acknowledge positively Australia’s geographical position in the Asian-Pacific region and liberate its political order and culture from the hegemony of the northern hemisphere and its capitalistic art-market. In the past forty years another dominating issue which has also been addressed by some Australian artists, such as Janet Laurence and David Moses by means of alchemical concepts has been that of the moral issues concerning the dispossession by white settlers of the indigenous inhabitants. In the 1980s and 1990s urban-based aboriginal artists had become fiercely politicized and activist. Artists have questioned the constitution of a national Australian identity on the basis of the despoilment of the ancient Aboriginal lands. In her work Janet Laurence has particularly used chemical and alchemical physical processes as metaphors for the political struggle of the aboriginals.


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