and Its Evolution
Aiming to rejuvenate poetry and the visual
arts by drawing on untapped sources of creativity, Surrealism
explored the mind’s hidden realms – dreams, mental
illness, and the unconscious. Writers and artists developed
“automatic” techniques in order to circumvent
conscious control and access the wellspring of the unconscious.
Automatism reflects the movement’s fascination with
new developments in psychiatric thought in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Surrealists saw automatism
as a visual parallel to Sigmund Freud’s use of free
association in psychoanalysis.
According to André Breton, the essence
of automatism consists of heeding the “voices…of
our own unconscious,” while attempting to relinquish
conscious control of logic, aesthetics, or morality –
enemies of fantasy and creativity. The Surrealists strove
to expand their mental worlds and recapture the freedom of
imagination normally accessible only in childhood, in dreams,
and perhaps in insanity. The role of reason was to be limited
to recording and appreciating the magnificent phenomena produced
by the unconscious.
Surrealism’s search for processes that
would free artworks from conscious thought manifested itself
in multiple forms and techniques. These include Jean Arp and
André Masson’s “automatic drawings,”
Paul Klee and Joan Miró’s semi-automatic works,
Max Ernst’s frottages (rubbing) and grattages (scraping),
and Oscar Dominguez’s decalcomania (blotting). Man Ray
and other photographers developed techniques such as solarization,
photograms, and chance effects to create mystery and ambiguity.
In the 1940s, with the wartime exile of major
Surrealist artists to the United States, automatism became
a major force for New York school artists. Future Abstract
Expressionists, including Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell,
Adolph Gottlieb, and Jackson Pollock, were impressed with
the idea that the source of art could be the unconscious,
and expanded the repertoire of automatism.