Automatism in Art
Definition, Origin, History, Characteristics of Automatic Fine Art.
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Soft Construction with Boiled Beans
Premonition of Civil War (1936).
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
By Salvador Dali. One of the weirdest
paintings of the 20th century.

Automatism in Art
Automatic Drawing, Frottage, Decalcomania, Action Painting

Contents

What is Automatism?
Origin and History of Automatism in Art
Automatism in the Surrealist Movement
Techniques of Automatism
Famous Surrealist Artists Involved in Automatic Art
Action-Painting
Les Automatistes

 



Automatic Drawing. (1924).
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Andre Masson.

What is Automatism?

In fine art, the term "automatism" most often refers to a technique of subconscious drawing in which the artist allows his unconscious mind to take control. Popularized during the 20th century by Surrealist artists, who sought to unleash the creative force of the unconscious in art, automatic drawing and painting was seen as the only way to escape from cultural, intellectual and historical constraints and unlock the basic creativity supposedly lodged deep within the artist's personality. For Surrealist artists, automatic drawing and painting represented a higher, more noble, form of behaviour - an attitude not unlike that expressed by devotees of Outsider Art who see culture and education as a type of creative straitjacket. Apart from Surrealism, other movements in which Automatism has played a role, include Dada, the gestural style of Action Painting and a late-1940s Canadian artist group known as Les Automatistes. Probably the most famous painters associated with automatic art are Salvador Dali (1904-89) and Jackson Pollock (1912-56). Since the 1930s, Automatism has become a part of the technical repertoire of both modern and postmodern art.

 

 

Origins and History of Automatism in Art

Although Automatism is really associated with modern artists of the twentieth century, rudimentary forms originated in the eighteenth century, such as the accidental "blot drawings" of the watercolourist Alexander Cozens (1717-86), who taught drawing and evolved a method in which drawings of landscapes could be created from abstract blots on paper. Another pioneer was the eccentric English painter and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827), who claimed to be guided in some of his illustration by the spirit of his younger brother who died in his teens from consumption. Another interesting automatist was Madge Gill (1882-1961) who in 1919, following several traumatic events, began producing a large number of pen and ink drawings while in a trance. These images ranged from small pictures, a few inches in diameter, to huge creations up to 20 feet in width. Her hand, she claimed, was controlled by her spirit guide called Myrninerest. A contemporary of Gill's, the English painter and occultist Austin Spare (1886-1956) also claimed to be guided by subconscious influences, and became known for his automatic writing, drawing and occult symbols, all founded on his theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self. In addition, the last two centuries have witnessed a number of artists who have produced subconscious paintings and illustrations under the influence of drugs. They include artists based at the notorious studio belonging to Andy Warhol (1928-87) in New York, known as The Factory.

Automatism in the Surrealist Movement

The carnage and slaughter of the First World War led to a crisis of confidence in bourgeois morality. In the arts, for instance, it triggered the emergence of the anti-art movement known as Dada, whose nihilistic aesthetics eventually led to its own demise. Most Dadaists then regrouped in 1924 to launch the Surrealism movement. Under the watchful eye of its theorist Andre Breton (1896-1966), Surrealist artists sought to generate an entirely new type of imagery, which had nothing to do with bourgeois "establishment" values, which they saw as fundamentally reactionary, untruthful and highly limiting. The only way to free themselves of any possible cultural or educational connection with the "old order", was to suppress their conscious thoughts and instead harness the creative power of their unconscious mind - typically through automatic or randomly generated images, although hypnosis, dreams and hallucinations, were also used. Although a far cry from any form of academic art, Surrealism was responsible for a surge of creativity and spread rapidly across Europe to become the dominant style of modern art during the inter-war years. Its imagery, though often bizarre and absurd, captured the imagination of both art critics and public. However, despite Breton's assertion that Surrealism was "psychic automatism in its pure state", in the end, only a small percentage of surrealist works were generated using automatism. Furthermore, one should note, that the automatist methods used by surrealist artists were not totally unconscious. Thus their automatic drawing was not 100 percent automatic, but also involved a degree of conscious intervention to render the image more life-like or acceptable.

Techniques of Automatism

Automatism in visual art can occur as a result of any technique that eliminates conscious control of the artistic process, and replaces it with chance (as in the techniques of frottage, grattage and decalcomania), unconscious movements (caused by dreams, hypnosis, drugs and so on). Most of these methods were pioneered or developed by surrealist painters, although (as described above) automatic drawing (where the hand makes random marks on the paper) has been practised for centuries by mediums and practitioners of the psychic arts.

Famous Artists Involved in Automatic Art

Salvador Dali (1904-89)
Used imagery derived from his dreams and fantasies - a technique he christened "critical paranoia". His extraordinary paintings include the unforgettable Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936, Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Max Ernst (1891-1976)
Attracted to dream-hypnosis, Ernst also developed several automatist techniques. They include: frottage - in which paper is placed over a textured surface and a rubbing is made using a pencil or other drawing tool. He also pioneered decalcomania, a technique which involves creating images by pressing paint between two surfaces.

Andre Masson (1896-1987)
Psychologically scarred by his wartime experiences, Masson was a pioneer of Automatic drawing. He also introduced chance into his art by scattering sand over canvases previously spread haphazardly with glue. Then, at great speed, he would cover the canvas with paint, capturing these random patterns of sand-and-glue in patterns of brushwork and colour.

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Spanish surrealist noted for his 'automatic' paintings and random shapes, as in Birth of the World (1925, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Francis Bacon (1909-92)
Famous for his shocking surrealist imagery, Bacon was not averse to receiving artistic assistance from the bottle. He admitted, for instance, that his first major work, the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944, Tate Britain, London) was painted under the influence of alcohol.

Action-Painting

During the mid-1940s, Jackson Pollock (1912-56), leader of the New York School, developed the highly energetic, trance-like method of Action Painting, in which he dripped and poured paint onto a horizontal canvas. Influenced by Surrealism, Pollock and others employed this technique to promote the importance of existentialism in art, in which "existence precedes essence". Thus instead of being painted according to a specific plan, Jackson Pollock's paintings emerge out of the process of painting. In Europe, a similar method was seen in the form of Tachisme.

Les Automatistes

During the period 1946-51, a radical group of French-Canadian Surrealist painters, known as Les Automatistes began painting using a technique based on automatic writing. Based in Montreal Quebec and led by Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-60) - whose "allover" style of gestural painting was similar to Pollock's - the group included Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) as well as Marcel Barbeau, Roger Fauteaux, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Mousseau. The group caused outrage with the publication of its 1948 manifesto Refus Global (total refusal), which attacked numerous aspects of Canadian culture, notably the Church.

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