Proteus, the oceanic alchemist

Brian Robinson
Proteus, the oceanic alchemist, 2018
Linocut (unframed), 93cm x 62cm
Editions 1-15/15 available


In Greek mythology the deity Proteus is an early sea-god or god of rivers and oceans who was usually referred to as the Old man of the Sea. He was the herder of sea creatures, and a prophetic shape-shifter who could assume elemental or animal form as well as foretell future events, answering only to those capable of capturing him.

As an alchemist he possessed anima mundi, the world’s soul which gave him an intrinsic connection to all living things on the planet in much the same way our souls are connected to our body’s.

In this print Proteus, the oceanic alchemist, Proteus has transformed himself into an eight-legged octopus who has grip on three vials of potion in order to concoct the elixir of life, which was thought to have cured all diseases as well as replenish youth. From this blending of substances, philosophies, religion, magic and astrology came a new study, which people now call chemistry.

From the name Proteus comes the adjective protean, which generally means versatile, mutable, chameleon-like, capable of assuming many forms. This quality is highly applicable to my artistic approach and the temporal and cultural fusion that is evident in my work. It is also appropriate given my fascination with mythologies – whether those of Ancient Greece or the Torres Strait because my works embrace the universality of the myths, legends and storytelling of different peoples and times.

“A key entry point is the linocut print Proteus, the oceanic alchemist 2018. Robinson represents this ancient Greek deity — the old man of the sea and a prophetic shape-shifter — as an octopus. The artist sees himself and his artistic process in this character — ‘versatile, mutable, chameleon-like… [evidencing] the temporal and cultural fusion in my work’. This image also reveals an acute observation of the natural world, drawn from a childhood roaming the waters and wharves of his island home. Robinson has depicted this personified creature, not, as often portrayed in a more decorative fashion with all eight legs extended, but as it appears in real life — scuttling across the sea floor, buffeted by the flowing currents, but remaining in control, darting quickly and surely between crevices and coral. One eye is clearly open, alert to both capture and opportunity.

Virginia Rigney, room brochure essay, 2018

Photo: Michael Marzik.