Sigmar Polke

Oels Germany 1941 - Cologne Germany 2010

The four-part cycle Hermes Trismegistos I-IV (1995) takes its title from a mythical figure who is considered the founder of alchemy and the inventor of hieroglyphics. Several Hermetic philosophical writings, discovered in 1460 and known later as the ‘Tablets’, have been attributed to him.

The depiction that Polke has used for the work is that of a floor mosaic in the cathedral of Siena – Hermes Trismegistos granting the gifts of Writing and Legal Doctrine to the Arabs. The Latin inscription reads as follows: ‘God, the creator of all things, created a second visible God, and that was the first God that he created, and the only one in which he took pleasure: and he loved him as a son, for he was called the Sacred Word.’

The smallest canvas shows the depiction in its entirety; on the larger three, various fragments of the image have been enlarged. The color on the first painting changes: variations in the reflection of light cause the color to turn from emerald green to blue or mother-of-pearl. With the other canvases, painted in lacquer and synthetic resin on polyester, the depiction, the colors and the carrier are treated as separate components. The carrier, a transparent screen through which the stretchers are clearly visible, has been painted on both sides, giving rise to a complex stratification of the image.

The halftone image has been applied to the front side. Halftone dots haved played a prominent role in Polke’s work since the sixties, when he and Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg initiated Kapitalistisches Realismus, the antipode of the social realism that became known in history as German Pop. 

Large pools of paint have been poured onto the back of the polyester. It is as if the paint has gone its own way, as if pigments have drawn together as they please or have fluttered out into veils. Experiments with uncommon materials are a constant throughout Polke’s oeuvre. Like a veritable magician’s apprentice, he has painted with silver nitrate, toxic substances, soot, resins, pigments taken from medieval methods of preparation, and so on. The outcome is often unpredictable and changeable, like evolutionary processes in nature. Polke’s art does not allow itself to be pinned down. Behind every image he discovers yet another image, which he brings to the surface by way of chemical processes, mechanical reproduction or other means.

In the processing of Hermes Trismegistos I-IV, it seems that the Great Work of the alchemists has taken shape once again. Alchemy, a realm in which proto-scientific chemistry and the mystical quest go hand in hand, takes on the transformation of lead into gold, the search for the stone of wisdom or the fountain of eternal youth – metaphors for transmutation, for the perfection of nature or, if you will, for the self-realization of man. Each stage of this process has its own color, from black (nigredo) via white (albedo) to red (rubedo), or: first black (melanosis), then white (leukosis), yellow (xanthosis) and finally purple (iosis). These colors, which Polke  has also used for his four-part work, are directly related, in alchemistic cosmology, to the temperaments (the melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric) and the elements (air, water, earth, fire).

In the work’s last part, in which the figure of Trismegistos is enlarged, black and fiery red colors chase each other like thunderclouds in a storm. Polke was not so much aiming to create a portrait of the alchemist with this series; he has made the subject creation itself, the driving force that is always in the process of formation and is never finished. It has been rightly observed that in the relationships between the overall image and its parts, and between the front and back sides of the paintings, there emerges a coherence which Trismegistos himself defined in his Tabula Smaragdina: ‘All that is above is equal to all that is below, and all that is below is just as that which is above, in order that the mystery of unity be fulfilled.’