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August Strindberg, Three Sketches Depicting Partially Burnt Lumps of Coal, (Tre Koltechningar förestellande delvis förbrända kolstycken) 1896.
August Strindberg, Frottage made from the Shell of a Crab (Frottage av krabbskal), 1896.
Alchemy and Experimentation
Strindberg was passionately interested in science; but here, as in his art and literature, he challenged conventional wisdom and sought out his own truth. Central to his vision was the notion that ‘everything exists in everything!’ In other words, all elements, organic and inorganic, are related to one another, and are capable of being transformed into one another. Hence Strindberg the alchemist believed he could make gold.
In his quest to make connections, he took photographs of crystal formations that seemed to imitate living plants, and made sketches of lumps of coal that resembled strange figures. He constantly observed the natural world: he made frottages – rubbings – of the shells of crabs; and he photographed certain cloud formations, which he believed kept recurring at the same place at the same time of day, as if following some mysterious plan.
Perhaps most intriguing are his Celestographs: his attempts to photograph the stars. Working without a lens or even a camera, he would expose photographic plates to the night sky. The result was a series of dark pictures, speckled with dots of light, which Strindberg took to be stars. More probably the dots were caused by dust particles, or by some technical mishap. But as a use of photography to convey an idea the images are fascinating.
Strindberg’s scientific speculations led to a dangerous immersion in the occult. In the 1890s, suffering from depression after two failed marriages, he became paranoid, interpreting coincidences as secret signs from on high. His Inferno period, as he called it, was a time of personal crisis, but one which he later drew on in his art and writing.