Automatism is often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements when artists were beginning to look at ways to side-step the conscious mind and access the subconscious. The idea can, however, be traced to myths about the beginning of painting and art originating from people in pre-historic times responding to accidental shapes in nature.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) suggested to students that they should look at dirt on walls, at stones and patterns in nature for inspiration. Focused observation would allow shapes and textures to suggest ideas that could be used in their work.
In the 18th century Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) used blotting techniques to inspire landscapes, a method that he taught to his pupils. His techniques influenced John Constable (1776-1837) and Turner (1775-1851).
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) also experimented with using blots as the basis for more developed artwork. Contemporaries observed that he would use the dregs from a coffee cup or ink and create images using his fingers, sponges or brushes, even ink-soaked lace. He saw this as something more for the amusement of himself and his friends but his work did influence the Surrealists.
In the years before the First World War artists began to explore new ways to represent the world. Painting and sculpture were beginning to be seen as inadequate as ways to reflect a rapidly changing society. In 1916, Hugo Ball founded the Dadaist movement. It aimed to challenge convention both in the ways that art was produced and exhibited. Their experiments covered not just painting but poetry, performance and photomontage.
In 1919, Max Ernst (1891-1876), a leading member of the Dadaist movement, began to explore what he termed ‘beyond painting’. He was trying to find ‘automatic’ methods that would allow him to access the potential of the unconscious mind in creating imagery. He experimented with collage using items from everyday life to create artwork. This concept, of using fragments of newspapers, railway tickets and other ephemera was radical for the time as it brought elements of day-to-day life into the art world.
Another technique used by Ernst was frottage. This involved taking rubbings of surfaces such as floorboards or stone and, in a similar way to da Vinci’s suggestion, using this as the basis for more developed work.
Little Tables Around the Earth, c. 1925 by Max Ernst [External Link – opens in a new tab]
In Little Tables Around the Earth, Ernst used rubbings of surfaces which appear to be of wood and stone. At the bottom of the image a narrow, ridged area places us as the viewer in what may be a lunar landscape. On the horizon, against a dark, mottled backdrop, a large textured circle is orbited by three smaller circles. Ernst has played with patterns, textures and tonal values allowing himself to respond to what they suggest as an image.
Ernst also experimented with a technique he called grattage which means ‘scraping’ in French. For this a canvas covered with a layer of oil paint is laid over a textured surface. The paint is then scraped off creating a surface which can be further developed depending on what the shapes and textures suggest.
The Entire City, 1934 by Max Ernst [External Link – opens in a new tab]
The Entire City is an example of grattage. Most of the canvas is taken up with a textured surface which gives the idea of a stratified, perhaps bombed, city. The original surfaces look as if they may have been some kind of metallic mesh and, towards the bottom of the painting, what could be patterned material like brocade. A mottled, moonlit sky contrasts with the textures of the darkened city.
Ernst continued to experiment with automatic techniques throughout his life. In the 1940s, he punctured a hole in the base of a can of paint and swung this around to create random patterns, a technique which would inspire artists such as Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionist painters.
Untitled, 1936-1937 by Oscar Domínguez [External Link – opens in a new tab]
Oscar Domínguez (1906-1957) used the technique of decalcomania. This involved pressing paint, usually gouache, between two surfaces and using the resulting mirror image as a basis for landscapes or fantastical, dream-like imagery. In Untitled Domínguez has used the striations of the paint to create a creature that appears to be part lion, part bicycle.
In 1924, André Breton unveiled the Surrealist manifesto. The Surrealists had some aims in common with the Dadaists and artists like Ernst and Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966) became associated with the movement. The Surrealists also had an interest in automatism and explored ways to access the unconscious mind. Many within the group were influenced by Freud’s work in relation to dreams. They experimented with trance sessions where they would achieve a passive or receptive state that allowed them to create ‘automatic’ work.
Automatic Drawing, 1924 by André Masson [External Link – opens in a new tab]
André Masson (1896-1987), used a technique of drawing with pen and ink but starting with no conscious idea of how the image would develop. Other artists, like Joan Miró (1893-1983) used a mix of automatic and conscious techniques to work in looser, freer styles than they had previously done.
Jean Hans Arp saw art produced by automatic techniques as a necessary response to a changing society. The element of chance involved in the creation of work seemed an apt way to reflect the rapid changes in transport, technology and the arts.
In using these techniques there was a need for both the artist and the viewer to adjust their response to the artwork. As Modernism in art moved away from a more traditional representation of reality there was a need for both the artist and the viewing public to consider the meaning of the actual marks and make sense of what they saw. Without the cues of realistic representation or more traditional subjects the viewer was, and still is, forced to respond to the work in a more individual way and use their own experience to create meaning.
Domínguez, O. (1936-1937) Untitled [Decalcomania] At: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/33503?locale=en (Accessed 18.07.17)
Ernst, Max. (c. 1925) Little Tables Around the Earth [Frottage] At: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/94227?locale=en (Accessed on 18.07.17)
Ernst, Max. (1934) The Entire City [Grattage] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ernst-the-entire-city-n05289 (Accessed on 18.07.17)
Masson, A. (1924) Automatic Drawing [Drawing] At: http://www.wikiart.org/en/andre-masson/automatic-drawing-1924 (Accessed 18.07.17)
Backus, J. (2014) ‘Beyond Painting: The Experimental Techniques of Max Ernst’ In: Artsy.net 30.12.14 [online] At: http://www.artsy.net/article/jessica-beyond-painting-the-experimental-techniques-of-max (Accessed 12.07.17)
Turner, C. (2011). ‘The Deliberate Accident in Art’ In: Tate Etc. Issue 21: Spring 2011 [online] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/deliberate-accident-art(Accessed 12.07.17)