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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting. In physiology, automatism denotes automatic actions and involuntary processes that are not under conscious control, such as breathing; the term also refers to the performance of an act without conscious thought, a reflex. Psychological automatism is the result of a dissociation between behaviour and consciousness. Familiarity and long usage allow actions to become automatic so that they are performed with a minimum of thought and deliberation. Pathological automatism, also the consequence of dissociative states, ensues from psychological conflict, drugs or trance states; automatism may also be manifested in sensory hallucinations.

During the late 19th century Pierre Janet, a French psychiatrist, treated mental disorders with hypnosis, as did other practitioners of dynamic psychiatry. In particular, he studied the automatic behaviour of mediums to determine the degree to which the subconscious interacts with the conscious during a trance. A medium, while in a self-induced trance, performs spontaneous physical acts with no conscious control. Psychiatry suggests that their apparent messages from a spirit world may actually be subliminal thoughts or feelings, released and given free expression.

While psychiatry considers automatism reflexive and constricting, the Surrealists believed it was a higher form of behaviour. For them, automatism could express the creative force of what they believed was the unconscious in art. Automatism was the cornerstone of Surrealism. André Breton defined Surrealism in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) as ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’. This automatism was ‘dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’. Breton’s formulation of automatism borrowed ideas from the practices of mediums and from dynamic psychiatry, which emphasized the interplay among conscious and unconscious forces in directing behaviour. Although related to Freud’s free association, the automatism of the Surrealists required only one person and was written rather than spoken. Automatic writing served as the Surrealists’ first technique for tapping what they believed to be the unconscious; subsequently, hypnotic trances and dream narration provided other routes to the unknown.

Automatism in the visual arts can arise from manual techniques that involve chance in the creation of the work ( frottage, grattage, decalcomania) or from psychological experiences (hallucination, intoxication, hypnotic trance, dream narration). André Masson’s automatic drawings, such as Furious Suns (1925; New York, MOMAstartend), Joan Miró’s paintings from the mid-1920s and Max Ernst’s frottages are examples.

By the mid-1940s the American painters known as the Abstract Expressionists (in particular ‘Action Painters’; see Action Painting) had adopted automatic methods in their work. Influenced by Surrealism, these artists introduced the appearance of automatism even when their pictures were deeply deliberated. They included Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Between 1946 and 1951 les Automatistes, a group of Canadian Surrealist painters, painted in a technique based on automatic writing. In post-war Europe, the artists grouped under the label Tachism produced paintings with swiftly registered, calligraphic signs and broad brushstrokes, which had the spontaneity associated with automatism.

Jennifer Gibson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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